Part Seven – Twenty Six Years in Federal Prison
Chapter 27 – Still I Walk The Red Road
By Ghost Dancer
With nothing more to lose, I put my trust in Spirit and just went right on doing what I had always known I was meant to do: teaching and speaking out about injustice and about traditional Native religions. I stepped right back into the sacred circles in every prison I was sent to. Since then and for years to come, my life has been spent learning from different brothers, teaching other brothers and learning from spiritual leaders who came in to visit and conduct ceremonies with us.
Many in prison will never be given the opportunity to get out. The prison system is their home. No matter how much they change, no matter how much they have helped others, people on the outside do not see their true heart, do not see that they would never return to that old life. When an outside visitor comes, the feeling of appreciation is beyond measure, especially a spiritual leader or someone who does not judge them or look down up them but comes and lets them know that someone out there cares and loves them.
My life has been touched by some remarkable people to whom I owe much:
Ellen was a member of the Fox/Sac tribe and a member of A.I.M. She was the radio DJ of the Arrow’s Radio program in Kansas City and spent more than 30 years of her life helping the Native American communities. One of her special radio projects was to take calls from family members of prisoners or from the prisons to give shout outs and play songs back and forth for prisoners and their loved ones on the outside. Imagine what this truly meant when so few people would ever reach out and publicly broadcast this on the media air waves.
Ellen was very active in going to prisons and visiting Native prisoners as well. I first met Ellen in 2000 at the federal prison in Greenville, Illinois. She came at my request with several other A.I.M. members. I didn’t know who would be coming but was sure happy to see her after hearing her voice for years and all the Native news and songs she passed on to us. But even more important, I got to know her strong spirit. Here was a woman who had been battling lupus all these years. Her smile, her encouraging message, uplifted everyone who knew her. She would return two or three time each year for several years until one day, very abruptly, Ellen lost her battle with lupus and took her journey. Ellen’s dedication to what she believed touched us all. It sure did me. So, when she came and brought other guests, I made them the best food and gifts I could and sang my heart out for them all.
The Unknown Anishinaabe
One elder who was placed in my path to meet and learn from came to visit when I was in a federal prison in Indiana. He lived on an Anishinaabe reservation in Michigan and I can still hear his beautiful name in my mind, but I do not know how to spell it, so I apologize for not sharing that memory. I remember that he had been given a kidney by his brother so that he could live, and he loved to laugh and hear the singing and dancing with the drum.
This beloved elder still practiced the old ways and I will be forever grateful for what he shared with me. He had Bear Medicine, which means he worked with the spirit of the bear and used his knowledge of plants for healing. I was happy for the opportunity to gain more plant knowledge, but more than that he taught me the use of Bear Medicine for the sweat lodge as well. He taught me how to do clean-up ceremonies for those who have done bad and veterans returning from service.
This good man encouraged me in my journey and related his understanding that we all have paths to walk and there are many, many paths. He urged me to never quit learning and gathering knowledge as we walk our path, because we never know when we will find uses for this knowledge. Many times, we may not understand why we must learn something, but Spirit always has a purpose and will always put those in your path that you need. He said to always pray about this and know that in life, people will be coming from all directions so “Become like the hawk gliding in the winds. Do not fight it, just find the easiest way to avoid the force against you. This is what you must do.” I’m thankful every day that this wise man walked into my path. In gratitude, Ghost
Dave Plunkett (Makwa)
Makwa (Bear) was another beautiful-hearted Anishinaabe spiritual leader. I met Dave in 2011 when I was sent to the penitentiary in Victorville, California and was immediately drawn to his sincere heart. For many years, Dave and his wife were actively involved in the Native American community in southern California, participating in powwows and ceremonies. Dave had been the Sun Dance chief in California for years. His teacher was a nephew of Wovoka, the Paiute prophet, a true Ghost Dancer and Sun Dancer.
As Sun Dance Chief, Dave would always help the dancers who were having problems breaking the bone skewers free through their pierced skin. He would take pity on them and pull the tether to help release the dancer and his pain. It is always up to the Sun Dance Chief in these matters and some do things in a harsher way. It is good that Makwa has such a loving heart. I knew Dave as a spiritual leader who took the time to visit Native men and women in prisons, bringing assurance that someone cares and loves them, when most feel forgotten. It made everyone’s day just for Makwa to come. Many prisoners never get a visit from families who live too far away. For them, getting to see him was like seeing family; like having your grandpa, uncle or brother come to see you.
All Native people are connected to everything. We all know this and feel this. When Dave came, he always had stories to share and brought much needed materials for our ceremonies. By sharing his time, knowledge and songs so freely and always listening to us, Makwa brought hope to so many, helping to guide and change lives, to begin walking the red road. Dave had done all this for many, many years. And those of us who have been blessed to know this man all strive to live and walk the red road as he has shown us. To be so giving to those in prisons, as well as those on the outside, so many are grateful to Makwa for his gifts of time, love, knowledge and especially of his loving spirit.
As most folks know, the bear (Makwa), represents a healer medicine. Now what most folks don’t know is that those who have healer’s gifts cannot use their gifts on themselves. True healers help so many but taking on the sickness and problems of others drains them. This requires constant cleansing and reenergizing to stay healthy. For years, Dave had ongoing struggles with serious health issues. It is always important that others remember to do all they can to help the healers who touch their lives. It is my understanding that Makwa has now taken the walk, but his legacy lives on. We all thank you, brother, and will always be so grateful for all that you and your wife have done for the Native community, both in the prisons and on the outside.
For years this amazing woman sacrificed her time, heart and spirit in helping me and so many others in any way she could. Lynda taught Native American studies for 22 years at a private university in Missouri. She was also very much involved with many Native American circles within the Bureau of Prisons system and was instrumental in meeting many needs. From donations of teaching materials, to filing complaints and working with chaplains and staff, Lynda worked tirelessly to help others gain a better appreciation of traditional beliefs and practices.
With patience and dedication Lynda helped in bringing in outside guests, organizing powwows, teaching traditional dances, and conducting ceremonies for the ladies at the women’s prisons, and so much more in so many ways to help thousands of Native Americans. Lynda’s dedication to teaching inside a class room or anywhere else, including her own home, helped so many have a better understanding and learn about the old traditions. Everything Lynda did came from her heart. That is the beauty of her spirit that changed hearts and minds. So many of us owe Lynda a great deal of thanks. May she always walk in beauty and love, secure in the knowledge that she is a true blessing to all of us.
Grandpa Ken Paulis
Now here was a true spiritual warrior. Grandpa Paulis, as we all learned to call him, had a real heart of beauty and love. He was Iroquois and after serving in WWII he brought the very first Native drum into prison at U.S.P. Leavenworth in 1944. He would continue going into the prisons until 2004 when the BOP officials stopped him because they were worried about his health. By then he was an old man and they knew they could not stop him from dancing. Yes, he was our elder brother, uncle and grandpa. He loved to dance and he really loved stomp dancing. Grandpa Paulis was a true inspiration to many thousands of brothers he came to meet over the decades and he never grew too old to out-dance most younger folks.
Grandpa Paulis’ teachings and guidance had a big effect on me. He always advised me to take time to teach as much as I could to the youngsters who did not know the old ways or their own history. He was a true veteran and he honored me by calling me his brother. That made me want to always honor him in every way by doing as he asked of me. He loved coming to the prison powwows. He enjoyed talking with all the brothers and he loved sharing his stories and knowledge. I will carry his teachings and advice with me always.
A most beautiful and true inspiration in my life was an amazing spiritual elder named Delores Tabia Santha. She was a wonderful Comanche/Iroquois lady who loved all of us. Grandmother Santha came inside to be with all of us and bring us lots of love and the wisdom of all her years of experience. Her loving heart brought happy laughter and her generous spirit touched everyone. Grandmother Santha held many prestigious positions in the Native American communities as well as the outside world and her storytelling was known around the world. To be personally guided, advised and touched by the teachings of this amazing woman helped make me the man I am today.
The Choice to Live in Beauty and Love
In my personal journey, I had to accept the life I was placed in and not let it drag me down, but to think positive and live each day as it was meant to be – in beauty and love – and try to treat everyone in a loving manner. Yes, there are ups and downs. At times there will be problems, but we have to understand that the way we deal with situations beyond our control, depends on how we look at them. I had to see this as a chance to make something positive out of something negative; to find purpose in being placed here.
Forever grateful for wise counselors, over the years I have kept pushing for all the brothers to seek more knowledge of their own histories, religion, languages and cultures and to educate themselves in legal matters pertaining to their Native American rights. I have encouraged them to do the work to earn their G.E.D. so they can apply for higher education assistance through their tribes. Most, I find, don’t even know all the benefits they are entitled to or how to go about getting them. So many have not learned these basics on their reservations and even many of their parents or elders don’t know what or how to get things they are entitled to. So it was, and still is, important they learn all this too.
Many of my Native brothers have drug or alcohol problems so it is vitally important to make sure we have P.I.P.E.S. (People in Prison Entering Sobriety) or a White Buffalo Program, a Native drug and alcohol preventive program. Fundamental to every educational or treatment program, is getting the men involved in the traditional religious practices of their own tribe and learning to grow spiritually with honor and respect for the ancient ways of their ancestors.
Another important aspect is getting everyone into taking care of their health. I have always worked to keep the brothers exercising by learning yoga, stretching, doing cardio, working out, and playing sports together as a team. All this helps keep them busy, focused, and helping to heal themselves no matter what is going on around them.
In working with the Native brothers, I believe they also need to learn their own history and skills in their own artforms. I began by teaching pre-Columbus Native American history and the history of invasions by the Europeans and colonization up to the present. In Native American arts, I have taught beading and drum making. By having drumming circles, the brothers can practice drumming, but also learn both ceremonial and powwow songs as well.
As a part of our sweat lodge experiences, the brothers also learn the symbology of the lodge which represents our mother’s womb. They learn the meanings of every part of the lodge, what each pole, each cross section means, its purpose, its gifts, and how every part is part of us. In our ceremonies, each layer of our mother’s womb creates a deeper understanding of ourselves. Taking turns, each member shares his tribe’s history, ceremonies, stories and customs. Getting to know everyone around you and about tribes you may never have heard of, deepens your sense of who you are. Every tribe, every spiritual leader or teacher teaches their own way, what they have been shown by Spirit, by experience or through visions.
Even though spiritual leaders or teachers might be from the same tribe or nation, they will have differences, so the important lesson is to never get so wrapped up in what you have been taught, to think it must be that way or it’s wrong. There are many roads or paths to spiritual truth. In our wheel of life there are many spokes. None is better than any other; all are equal. It is the same with us.
Working with the brothers, I understood that at times it hurts that we have family members or a loved one that needs our help, physically, financially or emotionally, and we aren’t there for them. We feel so useless and helpless, so what can we do? We pray, we go to the sweat lodge for Inipi ceremonies to help us. After the first door of purification, we pray and ask help for those who need it. We ask our brothers to pray for them also. We ask our spirit helpers to help them, and we believe in what we are doing. We believe in our prayers. As we pray with the cannupa, the sacred pipe, we send our prayers in smoke up to our Creator asking for help for those we have prayed for.
I have been across this country in different federal prisons. I have met, many different Native peoples, young and old, from almost every different tribe in the U.S., even from Central and South America. Many people don’t understand the rules we live by in prison. There is a code; it is rough, and it does not bend. These are the guidelines that were set down by the wicasa wakans when the very first sweat lodge was built at Lompoc Prison in California. For people to think that a person can come into the prisons and not be real, or true, well, that won’t ever happen. If you are not who you say you are, or not what you say you are, you won’t last a day.
You may tell someone else a lie about who you are or where you are from, but you better not lie to a brother about that. The Native circle is sacred. It is a very closed group that is not open to just anybody. So, for those who think that, think again. Do you think all Natives look alike? What does a Native American look like? Does being enrolled in a federally recognized tribe make you look a specific way? Let me say this, you will see a sacred circle consisting of every color, shape, size, and age, so don’t let Hollywood program your mind to what a Native American looks like.
As Buffalo Calf Woman taught, don’t let what you see on the outside of a person cause you to judge. The old ones used to say that many times we are tested by Spirit to see if we are true to the spiritual teachings. Looks can be deceiving and being enrolled or not does not decide or determine if you are a Native American or not. I know numerous full-blooded Native Americans who are not federally or tribally enrolled. Because of the tribe’s laws or for whatever reason, their ancestors may not have submitted to enrollment, or may not have surrendered or maybe they went and hid during the round ups to be taken to the reservations, these Natives are not recognized.
Usually at a prison you have more Natives than can possibly fit in the lodge. Years ago, they used to give us two days a week to do the ceremonies, but not anymore, which makes for a Natives-first rule. We could not deny a Native brother who has the right to be part of the ceremony, just to make room for someone who just wants to come as a guest. Usually there is a policy in place that specifies a day for guests to come. When outside volunteer guests or spiritual leaders come they get first preference, even in conducting the ceremony. It is also the duty and responsibility of those who know how to conduct different ceremonies, to teach others. We are never to hoard anything, knowledge included. We have a duty to teach these guys so they all can conduct the ceremonies themselves.
Most of these guys will be going back home and they will need to be able to build a lodge and conduct ceremonies at their homes for their families. They will also need to reach out to their friends and encourage them to change their lives as they did in prison. In our Native circle, it is our duty and responsibility to help our brothers and sisters to return back home to their families and communities, a better person and an asset to all of them.
Continuing to walk the sacred Red Road on the outside is always the challenge when anyone gets out. Each one must remain true to their spiritual self and not give in or allow themselves to be pressured by friends, family members or outside influences to get back into their old ways which may have been negative or put them in positions to have problems. I speak from my own experiences and working with thousands of brothers from all across this country and different reservations. We all have choices to make. Each choice in every moment has effects.
Now here is a rule we all have to follow: Think before you act! This is why the old ones say to stop and think on something before you make a decision, and we must be careful what we ask for; we just might get it! In prison there is nowhere to run or hide from yourself. Your decisions will either make you or break you. It is the same in the lodge; we cannot hide from Spirit. We cannot hide from the truth, and we cannot hide from our ancestors. We face our own true selves and must decide what we need, what we must change, and what we must let go of and release. We must face the fact that we are not strong, we are not powerful like Spirit; we must be humble and ask for help. Spirit will know if we are speaking from our hearts, tested in fire by the breath of Spirit and reborn as a new being each day to walk in beauty and love. It is our decision to choose this path.
Inequities in the Law
Almost every Native American locked up, and I stress, almost every one of us, is locked up behind a drug or alcohol-related offense. What many do not know, however, is that Native Americans are automatically considered violent because of our race and will be sentenced under different guidelines than others. Natives always get longer sentences, even for the first offense, and few Native Americans ever get the chance to go to a halfway house reentry program. Because of this, in 2001, I filed a discrimination claim against the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) so the brothers could get these programs as well.
According to BOP policy, Native Americans are not recognized as a people. We do not exist except as a religion or as a gang. That is how they view us, and we may or may not be listed as Native American. I once filed a claim against the BOP for not providing educational programs for Native Americans under the Native American Education Act. Incredibly, their response was that Native Americans do not exist. Our battles are never over. Even though we have federal laws in place to protect our religion, we have to fight to actually receive rights that we have already won by law. For Natives in prison, if you don’t know your rights under the law – and most do not – you most certainly will not get anything you are entitled to receive.
Native Americans are the smallest minority of all races and all religions, so the battle is always uphill, especially in prisons where the local Native population is small and the prison is not located near a strong tribe. In the southern states, the battle is even worse because religious prejudice is so pervasive. Even chaplains, charged with meeting the needs of every religious group, constantly hassle and harass Natives over their religious practices. Traditional Natives are the only religion required to get a clearance from medical in some prisons and the only ones who must prove our religion in many prisons. A lot depends on the chaplains at each prison.
I find it strange that no Native American has ever been hired as a chaplain by the BOP. Years ago, I took a look at my situation with all this time I had to do and came to the realization that everything happens for a reason and something good can come out of things that are bad. I have spent every day trying to learn more and more. I dedicated my life to learning, practicing, teaching and helping all brothers and our causes in every way I can. I have truly been blessed to have spent time with so many great, truly spiritual brothers, outside spiritual leaders, tribal leaders, and outside guests who have touched the lives of so many.
Tapping Into the Creative Spirit
Throughout my years in prison, my creative gifts helped sustain me with a sense of purpose. Teaching others and coming up with new ideas challenged my mind. My hands were kept busy and my days filled through the art of designing and creating beautiful hand-beaded leather regalia and unique beaded jewelry, even beaded caps for men and other gifts for visitors and powwow giveaways.
I also made drums, rattles and other ceremonial items for the spiritual groups wherever I was sent. My creative spirit also turned its hand to pastel painting and writing out some of the experiences, knowledge and skills I have gained over my lifetime so that others might learn more about the old traditions, life ways and struggles of all Native Americans.
For many years my beadwork has been made with love as gifts for friends and family to use for their personal enjoyment, to sell, or to share.
To this day, I still enjoy creating beautiful things and putting my thoughts in writing so that others might learn and better appreciate what it truly means to be a traditional, spiritual Native American.
In 2014 these pieces with descriptions of their deep historical meaning were made expressly for the Heritage Gathering Exhibit in Georgia.
Finding Peace in Prison
I have found peace in the midst of chaos by disciplining my body, mind and spirit to be one with everything, to see beauty and love all around me each and every day. I awaken each day as a new born baby, excited to experience and enjoy what Spirit has given me to see, feel, smell, taste, hear, and bless me. As is required, I make sure to do the four-day fasts when I seek higher understandings and need special prayers answered. Fasting as purification is an important part of my life. I fast in respect to the solstices, equinoxes, green corn, and many tragic days of history when our people were massacred. I fast whenever I’m making or putting together any ceremonial item we may need for the sweat lodge, or when we rebuild the sweat lodge, or when we have our spirit runs.
We all need purification. Surrounded by such negativity as in our prison environment – BOP staff and other prisoners – it is crucial that we purify our bodies, spirits and hearts as often as we can. It has been proven that a prison that allows Native Americans more traditional religious programs and activities, has fewer problems with Native prisoners, and any prison that has a strong Native American support system from outside people coming in, is even less likely to have problems.
Native American prisoners have very little in common with other prisoners. Many have little experience in being around other races and seldom, if ever, have left their rez to travel to cities or such, so there is very little common ground. This makes it even more important that young Native people in prison have activities and programs that keep them from being bored or just idle, feeling isolated, sitting around with nothing to do. Who, but the elders at that prison can best motivate the Native prisoners to play sports, exercise, learn the drum, participate in the lodge, and take classes together, especially subjects that interest them.
This is why I have always made sure to promote the Native history classes, P.I.P.E.S. programs, beading and craft programs, basketball, softball, and workout classes, and I participate with them. A good leader always leads by example. This is what elders have always taught me, plus the youngsters always love trying to beat you. For years I sought donations of Native American books, videos, CD’s and all types of craft items to give the brothers. These were the tools needed to learn not only songs, dances, languages, and ceremonies, but histories of their own tribes. With the supplies, the brothers can learn to make traditional items and even send them home to their kids or family. They are also encouraged to make give-away items for all outside guests who come in for the pow wows.
Throughout my years, the old activist in me has always found a call as well. I’ve never been one to keep silent when I knew laws were being broken in some way. Usually those in authority could be persuaded, sometime corrections required some pressure, and sometimes, when my pressing for Native rights became too much of a thorn in the side of a bigoted warden, repercussions could be harsh and swift. I cannot count the times and all the ways I have been severely punished for pushing back against prejudice and illegal actions on the part of prison staff. One huge example is when I was abruptly transferred to USP Victorville, California in retaliation for filing BP 9 complaints against the warden at FCI Yazoo, Mississippi. Stated BOP policy is to house prisoners within 500 miles of their family in order to facilitate visits, considered an essential part of rehabilitation. But this is often not the case and to deliberately send a person to the far opposite end of the country can only be seen as retaliatory punishment.
The years took its toll on my health as well. Early on I had some serious burns from boiling water in a kitchen accident at USP Terre Haute. This would lead to numerous bouts with cellulitis, sometimes life threatening. Then came the heart disease from years of a high fat, high carb diet nearly devoid of fresh fruits and vegetables, the cancers, the kidney disease, the worsening osteoarthritis and many other issues from serious injuries dating back to my youth and living a physically active life.
By the time I arrived at Victorville, I was already having significant pain in my knees and shoulder. Despite this, I stayed physically active until the damages were serious enough to warrant surgery. This would be my introduction to the very worst the federal prison system has to offer in the way of medical abuse and neglect. Several botched surgeries on my knee, shoulder and elbows rendered me crippled and wheelchair bound for years to come.
Fearing for my very life, my family showered Alabama Governor, Robert Bentley with petitions for help to get me transferred out of California and closer to home. He responded and in the summer of 2013 I was finally relocated to FCI Talladega, AL. My situation was greatly relieved, but right off I had another battle on my hands. Talladega had no proper wheelchair accessible cells so I had to school the warden on the laws protecting the rights of people with handicaps.
Otherwise I was soon back working with the Native brothers there to build a strong spiritual community as best we could with the few resources we had available. I would also continue my personal legal battles for justice on many fronts.
My story would not be complete without a few words about my buddy, Walks On The Grass. When he came to Talladega in 2019 he had already heard stories about me from Yazoo. Walks is a true brother with knowledge of the old songs and we loved singing together in the lodge. We had some fun and good times as well until the pandemic struck. Walks is going home soon and our paths will take different directions, but the bond we made will live on.
Beyond this, I will say no more about those twenty-six years. I pray they served a purpose but there is nothing that can make up for my wrongful conviction and all the dreams of home and family my beloved Cat and I shared that were lost forever.