I am an elder and a seeker, an outsider by nature, always looking through cracks in the fences of life trying to make sense of the world. Being an outsider can be lonely sometimes, but oh, what treasures can be found in most unexpected places. Without question one of my life’s greatest blessings came when I reached out for understanding and came to know a remarkable Native American warrior hidden in a world of his own. For nine years, I had the privilege to be both friend and advocate for Ghost Dancer, a remarkably wise and kind elder in federal prison. Over time Ghost began to reveal details of his life and his wrongful conviction, even asking my assistance in filing pro se legal motions as he continued his fight for justice from within the prison walls. The more I learned, the more I came to understand the full extent of his story and realized the importance that not only his wise teachings but also his life journey and struggles with injustice within the justice system be shared with the world.
Ghost Dancer – Known as a “gentle giant,” a wise elder, teacher, artist, and keeper of the old ways, Ghost has a deep understanding of the spiritual and cultural traditions of the Southeastern Native Peoples, as well as the Lakota Sioux and other western tribal People. Little by little over the course of years of my friendship with him, Ghost has shared bits and pieces of his life story, but much he kept to himself. Then in 2020, at the beginning of the Covid pandemic, with his health in a shambles, Ghost wrote pro se motions to the courts that convicted him asking for compassionate release. A year later, after multiple near-death health crisis episodes, Ghost was finally granted release from prison. After gaining his freedom in late 2021, Ghost agreed to tell his story. From the very beginning, Ghost’s biographical work, ALL FOR THE RIGHT TO PRAY takes the reader chapter by chapter through the course of this one man’s lifelong struggles to just be himself and live peacefully in a world where he knew even in childhood that he was “out of time, out of place.” Ghost Dancer’s story is both a revelation of the sheer evil that can negatively impact a person’s life as well as testament to the power of Spirit to give them the strength and helpers to triumph over it. From his world behind prison walls, GHOST’S SACRED PATH honors his Muskogee and Ani-Yun-Wiya ancestors as he shares a lifetime of fascinating stories, wisdom and thoughts to uplift us all and help us grow in our understanding of traditional Native beliefs and life ways.
In 2019, Ghost introduced me to another Native American inmate, Walks On The Grass. Walks’ life journey was entirely different but compelling and insightful in it’s own way. What the two had in common was their love of heritage and the practice of traditional Native American religious ceremony as a means of healing, teaching and surviving in the dark and hostile world of the “iron house” where Native inmates are the smallest minority. It is my personal honor to give both these two beautiful people voice to share their stories in “Journeys of the Spirit.”
Walks On The Grass – Readers will be riveted to each Chapter of LONG ROAD HOME as this delightfully warm and talented man shares an honest and compelling account of his amazing journey. From the first line, “I was born broken,” Walks navigates a path filled with bumps, boulders and wrong turns in search of wholeness. Through the grounding of songs, prayers and ceremony in the Inipi, traditional Lakota sweat lodge, and the support of wise elders and teachers, Walks gradually comes home to his true self. You won’t want to miss it. The fascinating story continues in ALONG THE WAY, a post script to Walks’ spiritual journey discussing in short essays, experiences, insights & humor on the “Long Road Home.” Finally, as Walks sees his long years in federal prison coming to an end, he shares each step of preparing himself for a new life outside those prison walls in LIGHTS IN THE DISTANCE.
Freedom lost, life found. That’s the gift I have been given. Through all my trials and tribulations I now see the light on a road I’ve never believed possible! Thank you Father God for never giving up on your children. Thank you for hearing my cry and putting the right people in my path. Sending prayers up for eternity in your guidance.
My name is Candace. I am living in a facility of the federal prison system. I am 36 years young and about to give birth to my 5th child. My children are the reason I’m still here on Earth. I was born into a broken home. I was abused in many ways as a child. I started using drugs before I was even a teenager. I believed the drugs were the reason the abuse stopped.
Throughout my life I held on to the drugs. The drugs controlled every part of who I was. I ended up in federal prison on my first felony charge. I didn’t know at the time what would happen. While in prison I accepted Christ as my Holy Savior. I got off drugs and earned my GED. Now I can sit still in my own presence.
Now I know I am more than just a statistic of an abused child. I am more than just a drug addict. I am more than just a mother who was lost. Now I am found. I am found by the grace and the unconditional love of the Holy Spirit. That is the electricity in my soul. I have been given no more than I can handle and blessings that can’t be denied!
To get over my past and move forward there are still things I must do. Healing is a journey and I must heal inside out from everything I have been through. Growing and sharing is a key part of walking this new path. I have to be open to listen to others, learn from their experiences and maybe by writing out my journey, I will be able to help someone else. I am ready for a change. I am ready to see and experience all the good in life. My children have been the only good I’ve ever really known. I just want to be good for them.
First I must learn to be a good mom to my own inner child. I will give my inner little girl all the love and nurture she never had. Only when I learn to love myself can I be the good mom my children deserve. There’s a lot more to who I am, where I’ve been, and where I’m going but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I see what I must do. I believe that everything happens for a reason.
My name is Candace. Please walk with me on my spiritual journey.
Into this life, I was born and I will die. Always on the outside, looking through cracks in the fences of life. Never quite belonging, alone, yet always striving to understand and be understood. Wondering why the pieces never seem to fit. Sometimes wondering if I even possess a piece of this great shifting puzzle . . .
Only to be reminded in precious, unexpected moments that the pieces I hold are gifts beyond my understanding. Signposts along my path alert me to unseen vistas; quiet side paths beckon me to explore the mysterious unknown; to discover the lessons I’m here to learn.
Fleeting chance encounters challenge the discovery of new ways of seeing, feeling, experiencing, and expression; each illuminating the truths I am here to learn. Strangers offer respite from the journey. An insatiable curiosity compels me to take the risk, to discover what lies behind those eyes, to linger just a bit to discover what joys a few kind words can bring to fellow seekers.
Only by examining, feeling the depths of suffering in the human experience can I avoid the crass hypocrisy of self-righteousness. By honoring the struggles and triumphs of the ancestors and fellow travelers, I gain the humility to feel the peace of graceful acceptance, and the healing balm of gratitude.
I learn the lesson of balance by respecting the magnificent beauty and bounty, as well as the overwhelming extremes of power and violence, inherent in Nature. Again, I learn humility and gratitude for I am but a speck by comparison, and it is for me to know these contrasts lie also within the human heart. I discover that in striving to learn how to live with balance, grace, gratitude, and integrity I move closer to understanding my place in the scheme of things, and ultimately, the total belonging of Universal Love.
I am old now. Not the “old” that middle-aged people are just beginning to feel, but the old that treasures each hour, each lesson, each memory as precious gifts. I accept that death is a part of life and we are here to learn and grow as spiritual beings. I am still learning the lessons this life teaches, but look forward to discovering what lies beyond this earthly plane.
The lessons of life create a never-ending story that will unfold far beyond this sojourn on Earth. So when at last the shadows fall on the warm sunshine of my life, I shall turn my face to the stars, and sing alone in gratitude and anticipation, placing my trust in the divine mystery of the universe.
I had been here at the halfway house for 3 weeks and thought things were finally going smoothly. Usually I’m in bed by 10:00 every night because I’m up with the dawn each morning to thank the Creator for another day.
Then something went very wrong. Since I am handicapped and cannot get up and down the steps, I live downstairs separate from the other BOP residents. This particular night, shortly after I went to sleep my door suddenly burst open. I sat straight up in the bed and there stood a large, young black man. I recognized him as another BOP resident who lived upstairs.
“Hey man,” I said, “What are you doing?”
He responded, “Just chill out chief,” as he ran into my bathroom and closed the door.
I heard the lock engage and then him talking in an agitated and animated way. I’m just sitting there on my bed wondering what the heck is going on when he comes out of the bathroom and heads towards the door with his phone in his hand saying to someone, “The man he’s here! The man he’s here! He’s got a gun!”
Then he left the room and I really began to wonder what was going on. I knew that earlier some of the people here had been drinking and were getting loud and arguing. Come to find out later one of the people that had been drinking ended up getting into a fight with another one of the guys and got beat up pretty good. He then left and shortly after, came back with a gun and now he was trying to get in. That’s why the man was so agitated and the staff just allowed him to run around and into my room to hide, putting me between himself and a man with a gun, placing me in definite danger when I thought I was safe.
Incredibly, a few minutes later the same guy came running back into my room to hide in the bathroom again.
I said, “Hey man, if you bring any drama to me there’s going to be issues.”
Again he said, “Don’t worry Chief,” and locked himself in the bathroom.
Shortly after, just like before, he came out again, shouting into his phone, “Come, Come! Hurry up get here. That n***** is outside running around with a gun looking for me.” When he went out, I got up and locked my door from the inside thinking to myself it was time to put a stop to this. I knew I would have some issues talking to people the next day and he would be the first person I spoke with. That is if he hadn’t been shot and if this man with a gun outside who ran away from the halfway house to go get a gun didn’t get in and shoot everyone. I thought I was safe.
I woke up the next day and called Sings just to let her know what had happened and that I had gotten through it with no problem. She could not believe what the night staff had allowed to happen and questioned why I did not have my door locked when I went to sleep. That is because they do a 4 AM count and I would have to get up and open the door. One must wonder why the staff cannot just unlock the door, check my bed and then leave.
So the fact is the staff did not even try and stop this man from running into my room nor did they even try to get the police here immediately. In fact we later found out, the halfway house management has absolutely no protocol to follow if a situation like this were to ever occur. I thought I was safe and had to ask myself if I should say anything to the management or not. Surely they know what happened, surely they know that this man had been allowed to run into my room. I still cannot believe that they actually didn’t try to stop him from coming into my room nor did they stop him from endangering all the rest of the people here. I thought I was safe but in fact the man’s reckless behavior and the staff’s disregard for a situation so totally out of control put everyone’s safety in jeopardy.
So the next day comes and they tell us we’re all on lockdown; the whole place is on lockdown, meaning no one would get any passes, no one could go to work, no one could have any visits, no one could leave the building because the man that came back with the gun after his drunken fight with the other guy was on the run. He had an ankle monitor on, and had they acted quickly, the police should have been able to catch him within minutes.
So the rest of the resident’s routines were turned upside down and the gunman had time to cut the ankle monitor off. As far as I know he is still loose to this day two weeks later. Oh, the feds know how to find him, trust me I’ve been the subject of their manhunts before. They leave no stone unturned and no door un-kicked-in. When they want you they get you, but he is long gone from here.
As for the rest of us, the management is still not allowing weekend passes (except for some), they are not allowing job searches (except for some) and come to find out, the Bureau of Prisons regional office in Chicago was never even contacted about the incident. It’s no wonder to me that this facility has lost its federal contract to house BOP inmates after this contract expires. The staff here seems to be ignorant of official BOP policies and even federal laws. They have a wonton disregard for all rules unless they make them. Official policies are not adhered to unless you force them with a threat of contacting Chicago.
Since I’ve been here the head office clearly Illustrated this fact when they failed to honor my Native American religious rights. They let me go outside in the courtyard at dawn for my morning prayers but only with my eagle feather. They would not allow me to have tobacco to hold pipe ceremonies and pray to the Creator. The fact is everyone here is allowed to smoke cigarettes outside in the courtyard all day every day for their own personal gratification, so what am I missing here?
Their rationale was this is a halfway house facility as well as a rehabilitation center. Other people might see me with that pipe and they wouldn’t understand. My response to that was this is my religious practice and it’s not for them to understand. The staff needed to research the Native American belief system and the laws that protect them. If they are unsure about something, let them ask. I’ve never had a problem explaining my beliefs, my religious ceremonies or my approach to the Creator. It’s simply that, an approach to the Creator.
Sings Many Songs sent tobacco for me to use in my ceremonial pipe. The staff confiscated it saying loose tobacco is not allowed in their facility. That edict did not last when I showed them the BOP policy statements and the federal laws they were breaking by denying me a religious object to pray with thus denying my religious freedom. They gave it back two days later.
I’ve since come to find out they were also told by another inmate that if they “mess with that Indian he will have the whole facility shut down by the federal government.” This man told them I know congressional laws and BOP policies and have been an activist in fighting for Native rights since 1986. He said, “They just don’t know who he is, that guy makes things happen.”
In reality he was thinking I was still the same militant revolutionary that I was in the past. The militancy is gone now, however I am still a revolutionary when it comes to my religious rights and beliefs. Now this “land of the free and home of the brave” allows me the right to practice my religious beliefs in the ways my people have done for thousands of years – it’s the law.
The simple point of the matter is residents in this halfway house facility were allowed to get drunk and go undetected, get in a fight undetected, one man leave and come back with a gun and not be arrested. While fortunately, he was not able to gain admittance to the building, what might have happened had he been able to get in? He would have come hunting for the man he came here for, of this I’m certain. This guy is still on the run; he’s been known to be violent in the past and obviously my concern, my misunderstanding is simply that I thought I was safe.
I thought I had entered civil society and was to work my way towards being a productive and valued member of society. In the short time since being released from prison, I’ve come to see that society is no longer civil and my only safety will be my own vigilance. Now I’m far from a coward; I’ve always faced problems and fears head on, immediately doing whatever I was afraid to do because I don’t believe in allowing fear to conquer anything, especially me. I will never allow fear to rule my behaviors or my actions. While I won’t rush into stupidity, I won’t turn a blind eye to ignorance either. I won’t suffer a bully, I won’t engage a liar, and I won’t live in fear. My wellbeing is certainly not safe in the hands of my keepers. I thought I was safe. I was not. The long and short of the story is that I’m not safe except for my Creator and myself. In this I have every faith and going forward, I will make a good life.
I want to talk about something that is very important to me. This chapter has written itself over the past 62 years. It is one that I never even gave much thought to until recently and it’s long overdue. I want to talk about the women in my life; women who have come through my life and stayed, women who have now passed beyond sorrow, and women I have drawn strength, understanding, and wisdom from.
See, this is not so much about these women as it is about men and I feel that I need to say these things because I haven’t heard it said yet. They are amazing to me, these warrior women, and don’t get it twisted, they are warriors.
I would have to start with my mother, Judy Pierce Maisenbacher Montgomery, what an amazing woman! She adopted four children and made us all her own; she loved and nurtured us all and brought us to adulthood doing everything that she could.
My sister, Judy is now beyond sorrow, her life cut off far too soon. She was an amazing woman, strong yet beautiful, smart yet funny, nurturing and loving, raising her son, Josh, by herself helping him to become a wonderful young man. The world lost a whole lot when Judy passed but Josh’s story didn’t stop with his mother’s passing.
Another woman, my brother, Bob’s wife, Bab, stepped in to love and nurture her nephew. Josh is now grown with a family of his own; a beautiful wife, Anna, and a son, JP. I’m so proud of that kid I could just choke. I haven’t spoken to him for quite a while maybe someday soon.
That brings me to another woman who taught me what it means to love and how to love. My beautiful wife, my Janice. I miss you this second, with every beat my heart screams, please don’t leave, I feel so alone without you. I don’t know how I’ve made it this far without your guidance and your love and your giving me hell when I was being an idiot.
I think that ultimately we see women as soft and warm and motherly but we as men fail to recognize the warrior spirit inside our women – the spirit that would allow them to attack any predator, to love and defend their children to the death and meet any odds against them to do so with no fear. This warrior woman spirit is truly a blessing of the Creator. Just like always, Creator provides all that we need if we just open our eyes.
Many other women have made an impact on my life in different ways. One of my bosses, Patricia Groome, was the supervisor at a federal prison manufacturing site. She was more than just a boss. Her guidance taught me many of the skills I have now – how to effectively plan and execute towards a goal, a job that would usually take several people to complete. She also taught me not to fear any task because the only part of the task that you can’t complete is the part that you don’t get started, so if you start it you can finish it. This woman treated us like men and not inmates and that was amazing to me. I wish I could reach out to her and tell her how much of an impact she had on my life but I think she knows. She had a huge impact on all the lives she touched including those of her own family. Wherever you are Mrs. Groome, I hope you’re doing good.
She was just one of many females, warrior women to be sure, strong intelligent creative and courageous. Others have come into my life off and on tapping at the seams of my understanding sometimes getting through to me. After all I’m not the easiest person to reach. I’m stubborn and I’m opinionated and I’m hard-headed. Maybe that’s what has gotten me through all this, my determination to never bend and never give up. As I say most every day, I’m walks On The Grass and I Will Never Surrender.
Men, just think about all women do. They bear our children, they raise our children, they feed us, they give us compassion, warmth, love, and understanding, all the time knowing that they are on the front lines of life even when we are not! They’re loving us and they are doing what they have to do to fight the battle for their own. What else can you call them or what else would you call them but warrior women?
I’d like to speak about some other strong women who have come through my life. First, my “adopted” sister, Leontien, who has meant so much to me over the past several years. She came into my life in an around about way through Helga, a woman I corresponded with who claimed to love me but tried to change me into what she wanted me to be. She was not interested in who I was, nor who I am. Needless to say that relationship did not last more than a couple years and that’s okay because out of the deal I got an amazing woman in my life. Helga introduced me to Leontien. We talked online a few times and I spoke about my sister Judy’s passing and how it affected me. I missed Judy and I had no one in my life to talk reason to me when I wouldn’t be reasonable, to speak lovingly to me when I was angry or being mean. Judy always brought me back to earth and Leontien could too, just like Judy would. Her insight or laughter and her ability to see the same reason that Judy always used to see and to get it through to me in a way that I might understand and become a better man for it. Leontien is from Amsterdam or that area in the Netherlands. She’s has a beautiful family, a loving husband and two beautiful daughters, each as talented as they could possibly be in their own ways, good girls, amazing women, warrior women.
More than once, Leontien has travelled 7,000 miles to see me so that she could share a smile and a hug and to let me steal her strawberry kiwi drink when she got up. I think she knew I did it, in fact we often joke about that. We don’t get away with much when it comes to these warrior women; they just act like they don’t know in order to make us feel as if we did something special, something ingenious.
It’s rather silly but men will be boys and boys grow to men but only because of warrior women. There could be no other understanding of that simple fact; not a man alive would be the man that he is where there not a warrior woman in his past, his future, his forever.
Others that have touched my life, however fleetingly, are some of the women that are here with me right now in this halfway house. They are called MINT Moms, meaning Mothers and Infants Together. These warrior women are in the federal prison system; they are pregnant awaiting the birth of their babies. They live here at the halfway house to receive prenatal care and to give birth. They will be allowed to spend a month or two months with the baby before giving the child to a family member to care for.
These women must go back to prison to finish paying their debt to society, but their warrior hearts want only to go home to care for their babies and older children. The strength and human spirit of these women is amazing to me. They meet each day with a smile for the people around them, treating others with dignity and respect knowing full well they will be separated from that child. How they can share smiles and laughter is simply amazing to me. Warrior women, each and every one of them.
I don’t know Elicia very well yet. She’s a pretty young woman, friendly but stays mostly to herself. Who can know what burdens people bear? Maybe one day, we can be friends. Then there’s Larissa, also pretty, quiet and unassuming but ready with a smile or an offhand comment. To me that shows strength that a lot of people don’t bear. Larissa is really cool; she talks to me, she’s friendly and has been helpful. To me they are both warrior women.
If it wasn’t for some of these women I wouldn’t be able to just sit here and do what I’m doing right now. See, this phone, this technological pain in my butt would be my undoing. In my mind I’m still in 1980 but in this halfway house I’m forced to be in 2022. Things other people take for granted are amazing to me. Learning to use this phone is part of my journey and I wouldn’t be able to do it if it wasn’t for the help of these warrior women. You women are the bomb!
Then I want to speak about Crystal. She’s a young woman, ready to give birth just any day and so big that she looks like she’s toting around a basketball. After her baby is born she will go home from here. Though she doesn’t have to go back to prison, consider how strong will she need to be to take her child home after prison? Yet Crystal is still able to be caring and tolerant and helpful to an old man who is clueless in this world and alone. Sometimes, most of the time, at least in my mind, I feel that way. All these warrior women are here in my life and it feels like Creator has placed them there for me and for me to help them as well.
And then there’s my little buddy Candace. She’s a cutie and she’s going to have a baby. Candace already has four other children. They are beautiful kids; she showed me pictures. She’s so proud of those children, she just glows when she speaks of them. Candace has a wonderful heart and an awesome medicine spirit about her. She’s a Christian woman who found Jesus early in her problems. He brought her through addictions and she truly walks the walk; she’s one of those people that even if you are not a Christian you have to admire the radiance and the power that the Creator has given them. Through whatever concept, Candace is a warrior woman. In fact she’s the one that showed me what buttons to push to do this right. <smile>
Then there’s Siobhan although she’s not expecting a baby, she’s a BOP woman getting ready to go home. Siobhan has several children at home. She works all day, harder than any woman I’ve ever seen. She comes home to the halfway house so tired she can barely stay on her feet, and then I’ve seen her with a basket full of laundry to do so she will have clean clothes for the next day. After having been on her feet for 12 hours working in a hot, uncaring environment she always manages to make me smile. Siobhan is one of the real women, a warrior woman.
And last but definitely not least a woman who’s just phenomenal. She’s smart, more like genius. If brilliance came in baskets it would take a convoy of semis to carry her load. Her name is Sings Many Songs. Most of you know her as Edna. I know her as a woman of compassion and wonder and curiosity and love – unconditional love. This woman has helped so many people in her life. Without Sings, this world, this planet would be far less, with far less wonder and beauty for those that she’s helped. Sings reached out to me when I met her several years ago through my brother, Ghost. We hit it off immediately. She was able to reach me and from the first moments that we really talked, I knew I could trust her. This woman is the epitome of warrior women.
She has raised her own beautiful family and lived her life with her husband, Jack who is a smart man in his own right. He worked in the NASA space program and helped put a man on the moon on my birthday. Little did I know, none in fact, when I looked at the moon that night, July 20, 1969 from Shaheen’s Raceway that the rocket on the moon with the men walking there would be put there in part by somebody who would be put into my life many years later through his wife. Sings, I don’t know how I can say strongly enough what you mean to me.
You have never wavered in your support, you’ve never faltered in your love and nurturing and care for me, my thoughts, my beliefs or the goodness that’s in me. Often you have said you didn’t know the bad me and the funny thing is, I don’t know that man anymore either. I’m glad he’s a stranger and I don’t ever want to meet him. I want to be exactly the man that you’ve helped me to become. I want to face all these things in my life, this new adventure and journey with your help and your guidance.
You made me a part of your family, and even though we are related by blood so distant, yet so true and distinct, not everyone would take on the burden of a man like me. I thank you and I’m honored to know you. You are a warrior woman and I want to say this in closing. I now understand why my people have always revered our women, why we are a matriarchal society, and why we hold all that is sacred in the hands of our women. I understand and honestly, warrior to warrior, were it not for you there would not be a me ready to face the world.
It’s funny how you think you have yourself prepared and all the mental shackles of the past 23 years of captivity are just going to go away when you’re finally released to a halfway house and the first small steps toward freedom.
August 30, 2022 – Amazingly enough I slept like a baby that night before I woke up with the dawn as I try to do almost every day praying thanks and gratitude to the Creator for the new day. What an amazing day this was going to be; I was being released from prison after 23 years and being given a second chance to experience a good new life.
They called me to R&D to do the release thing and I’m identified by a lieutenant to ensure that I’m the right man, and as he does this I’m thinking in the back of my mind, please let it be a dream, please let it be somebody else that has been going through this hell in the belly of this monster for all these years.
He asked me a bunch of questions framed out of my file that only I would be able to answer. Mother’s maiden name, where I went to elementary school, my family’s names, stuff like that. Eventually it’s decided that yes, I am in fact me so they take me to the front building. This will be the first time I’ve moved anywhere outside of the institution without shackles in two and a half decades. They get me up front, fingerprint me and give me a whopping $39 for two meals and cab fare to the halfway house. I’m escorted out and put into a car with another inmate being released that day.
We are driven to the Birmingham, Alabama Greyhound bus station, right smack dab in the middle of downtown Birmingham, not a good place to be. So there I am. I get to the counter and it’s closed until 5:00 p.m., three full hours from then so I go outside and sit down with my walker and a bag full of all I own at that moment.
My first human contact as an unshackled man is a nefarious looking character who approached me asking for a smoke. “No sir, I say, “I don’t have any, I don’t smoke.” He persists, I respond with, “No thank you, I don’t want to score any crack, ice meth, Adderall, marijuana, or heroin, but thank you for asking, and if it’s all the same to you sir, no disrespect intended, I don’t feel like talking right now.” He moves on to where and to what I don’t even want to know.
I have 7 hours until my bus leaves. This is not freedom; this is a war zone and for me it’s fortunate that I don’t look like prey. My first contact with anyone in the free world was a dope fiend trying to drag me back into the same hell of his world. This is not going to be easy. While I’m sitting there, one of the bus station security cops walks by looking for people blatantly using narcotics.
I asked him if there was any way possible to make a phone call. He took out his phone and handed it to me. When I told him I didn’t know how to use the phone, he probably saw the anxiety and apprehension I was going through. He says, “You just got out of prison didn’t you?” Then he made the call for me to the only lifeline I have. I needed to call Sings; she has been my rock through these changes, always supported my want to be a better man. On the phone, Sings listened and helped me deal with the moment. Afterward, the cop and I chat a little more and he asks if I’m going to be okay. I’m grateful for his kindness.
Leave it to say that the rest of the trip was uneventful though it was filled with many people, fellow travelers. Each and every one of them, I’m sure with their own story, their own feelings and family, maybe on their way to those that love them. As I sat in that bus looking out at the sky, the darkness, into nothing, I said to myself, “Walks, this is not going to be what you have; there won’t be darkness in your future, there won’t be bad in your future. There will only be you in the future you make for yourself with the help of those who love you and care. This is who I am! This is who I will be! I’m Walks On The Grass. I am a Creek-Seminole warrior and I will never surrender.
I travelled across this country in that bus, finally got to Memphis. Transferred buses, more of the same, people going here and there. Finally got to St Louis. Amazing that in a city the size of St Louis the place was empty and just miserable. Short delay, then on to Springfield, Illinois, only a couple hours away. The bus arrived with only 17 minutes to spare in the window I was given, otherwise I’d be arrested for attempt to escape and taken to the county jail – back into the mouth of the beast that I had just been expelled from.
My cab arrived at the halfway house with just 4 minutes left between me and violating the halfway house expectations. The halfway house is to be my point of entry into what will be freedom. I understand that I’m still not free now. I also understand there will be things I have to do that will be uncomfortable. For me nothing can be as uncomfortable as the way you feel when you have no one and you’re unsure of those of your family who love you or say they love you. You know you’ve been so wrong in the things you’ve done or said in your past but this is now, not the past. I am more than my past. I have apologized and I will not make more apologies.
I will only move on in the right way and the only way I wish to proceed. From this point on I am Walks On The Grass. I am a Seminole-Creek warrior and I will never surrender. I hope your days go well and I will continue to pray for each and every one I care about in my dawn prayers, eagle feather in hand. The difference is from now on I will pray standing outside watching the sun rise as I sing, knowing I am truly blessed just as I am. For strength, I cry out to my Creator for I believe all men deserve second chances.
Editor’s note: This is the next book in the saga of Walks’ LONG ROAD HOME which documents his spiritual journey including, ALONG THE WAY more accounts of his years in prison and LIGHT IN THE DISTANCE, the last months of his mental and emotional journey, preparing him to STEP INTO THE LIGHT.
Now I must tell everyone there is a huge dramatic adjustment anyone getting out of prison must make, especially if this has been the only life you’ve known for a long period of time. There are a few things I had to learn – and learn quick.
First is to slow down! Reset the way you think and react. In prison you are in an environment where you must be on constant alert. Any sudden movements, anything that isn’t normal, draws you to be “on point” as we say in prison. Learning to just relax and calm your mind is key for everyone who is getting out.
Yes, the world outside moves at a fast pace, but in their thinking, folks out here are very slow. If you think slow in prison you either don’t make it or you pay a heavy price. Stop and think, on the outside you don’t have to jump when anyone tells you to do something. You don’t have a specific amount of time to act or be punished for not reacting fast enough. Out here no one is ordering you when to go to bed, when to eat, go to the restroom, get up, telling you how fast you have to eat or do without, or how fast that you have to get out a door or miss out on going to recreation, or going anywhere.
People who have been in for long amounts of time have it harder than those who were only in for a short periods of time. Out here anyone who has been in a long time will automatically be considered a violent offender so he needs to conduct himself with sincere humbleness and a thankful attitude. When you are interacting with other people, say when seeking any kind of services you need, a smile, polite manner and gratitude will go a long way toward disarming any tense situations or bad attitudes and help you get the help you need.
Too many people come out of prison with a bad attitude, they act tough and want people to fear them. I say that is a big mistake. If people are afraid of you they will do things to get rid of you. If you have a bad attitude people will not want you around and if you try acting tough, well guess what, someone will call you out on that. So keeping a good attitude, staying humble and appreciative of other’s help are a must for anyone adjusting to being free.
The prison mentality with all its rules and egos must be left inside of prison if you want to stay free, become a success and change your life for the better. No matter how rough you have it out here it is still a 100,000 times better than anything you had in prison. You may have to develop a thick skin and learn to ignore insults or judgments made against you because you have been in prison. People will be people and some are going to be judgmental. Their attitudes towards you will not change no matter what you do so just don’t worry about them. Your own actions of doing good will help you become successful and living a real life will be your reward.
Blessings of a Patient Wife
I could not have made it this far without the help of so many people. I had to hit the ground running to work with my supervised release officer and resource officer who is still helping me through the process of getting myself back into the world and finding the ways and means to get the medical help I desperately needed.
This has meant nearly daily trips, often across town, to all kinds of appointments. In the beginning Cat did all the driving so she had little time for anything she needed to do for herself. Already I’ve had three major surgeries and Cat has nursed me through all of them. There will be several more in the coming months.
My Cat, my loving wife, is the one who has been right here standing by me every step of the way and she has borne the brunt of my mistakes and frustration as well. Cat has helped me through all the adjustments and guided me as I try to figure out all the changes and so many new things I need to know.
Every single thing has changed while I’ve been away. From computers, email and phones to traffic laws, and even the businesses, communities, cities and people I once knew; all have changed. Yes I’m like Fred Flintstone waking up in George Jetson’s spaceship world and Cat’s job has not been easy! See, in prison you don’t ask for help. You just do what you can and try to figure things out yourself. I tried to hide all my frustrations from not knowing anything and feeling so vulnerable in a world I knew nothing about.
I wanted to help Cat; I wanted to do my part and I tried. I would think I was helping but in fact my “help” was doing more harm than good and it made her work so much harder straightening out all my blunders and mistakes. Sometimes I would get upset and vent my frustrations. Maybe someday, maybe ten years from now we will be able to laugh at some of the things I did, but at the time, they were not very funny.
If confession is good for the soul, here are a few examples of the things I did:
Tried to help by running the dishwasher. Put in way too much soap and the wrong kind. Flooded the kitchen with soap bubbles. My sister Judy helped me scoop up bubbles all morning trying to clean this up.
Tried to help do laundry. Didn’t separate my brand new blue shirt and dyed all Cat’s white clothes blue.
Ruined Cat’s electric skillet trying to surprise her by fixing her some breakfast. Used a metal spatula and scratched up the non-stick surface. We won’t even mention some of the other messes I made in the kitchen.
Learning to drive and not paying attention to what Cat tried to tell me. Crazy drivers these days and I was one of them. I had Cat hanging on her seat and scared half to death I would wreck, and me getting upset because those fools just don’t care how they drive.
Thought I would help by mopping the floor. Oh I was so proud but come to find out I didn’t use floor cleaner, I used floor wax instead. I could not figure how Cat got her feet so black when she walked on the floor.
Not being careful when I got up from the dining table. I fell and crashed into Cat’s china-shelf breaking almost all the beautiful pieces she treasured that had belonged to her mother. Yeah I totally destroyed it all and it cannot be replaced.
When I tried learning the computer, I thought I could figure it all out but ended up getting totally frustrated and calling Cat to the rescue. I crashed her computer so many times and wiped out a lot of her stuff.
Yeah, I’m a mess and I caused this beautiful amazing woman so much stress that she was hospitalized three times in one month with her heart. Yeah imagine that! And knowing that it was me that caused her all this stress made it that much more important for me to get my own self fixed.
When she felt she could take no more, my patient Cat told me frankly that I needed to change and change fast. She told me that instead of constantly moving, talking non-stop fast as I could, I needed to slow down, listen, pay attention and be conscious of what I was doing. I needed to learn to ask for help!
By nature I am one who keeps my thoughts, doubts and problems bottled up inside. In the violent world of prison I was able to cope by not letting others see or know how inadequate or helpless I felt. That mindset came home with me. The result is when I wanted to try to impress Cat, my actions were disrespectful of her.
Letting prison go became a major priority for me in other ways too. It was bad enough being in prison all these times when I was actually innocent, but to be sent back now for violating the rules of my release such as doing something that would frighten someone or reacting to any threats or any words by others, would be totally self-defeating. I still have goals and dreams I wish to accomplish in this life. Unlike many that have been in my shoes, I will not, must not allow myself to fail at anything I truly want to do. So I must make the changes necessary to fit in this world, to protect the woman I love and to free her from stresses caused by my own habits, routine, and programmed prison mentality.
Reconnecting with Family
I have a wonderful family that loves me so much. As soon as my mom found out I was free, she was jumping up and down wanting to come and it was not long before my sister, Judy brought her to Florida. That reunion was such a wonderful day! They too witnessed the pressure of my adjusting to this world and helped me so much. They didn’t criticize me, just offered encouragement and lots of love.
A few months later, Cat and I were able to go for a visit with many more of my family. Judy and her husband, Scott welcomed us to their home and took us around to see everyone. Of course Mom was with us every minute possible. We got to see my brother, Greg, his wife Becky, my sister Teresa and meet all my new nephews, nieces that I had never seen before. Getting to see my sister, Jackie after more than 27 years was a special treat. Those were such joyful reunions.
Visiting my dear Aunt Hazel was a true miracle; she has been kind to me all my years and now she is so very frail. It was so good to see my cousins Gary and Ronald after so long and meet all their kids, grand kids and families. So I have been truly blessed in getting to know them all and I will make sure to spend as much time with them as I can. Having a loving family to welcome you home, to help support and encourage you to succeed is vital to anyone being released from prison and I am so grateful.
When people are locked up, every part of the whole system works against them. They brain wash you each and every moment with messages that you are nothing, you are worthless, you will never succeed. “You will be back,” they say, “No one loves you, you are no good and we will save your cell and bunk for you.” Why? Because to all of the system you are nothing more than their cash crop, job security. If taxpayers only knew of the corruption and waste of their hard-earned dollars they would be demanding reform. So reconnecting with a loving family is an essential part of washing away the incessant message of worthlessness everyone hears in prison.
Counting my Blessings
Now I am enjoying the pleasures of real food, meeting people who truly mean what they say, who talk nice to you and treat you with respect because they want to. To feel this again is a wonderful experience and I know it is my responsibility to speak and act toward others with humble respect as well. Having real doctors, P.A.’s, nurses and staff in medical practices and hospitals who truly want to help you and care about you is so wonderful! I have been blessed with all kinds of good experiences, I’ve made numerous real friends, and been helped by so many good people – medical people, business people, musicians, veterans, federal marshals, supervised release officers, Step Program resource officer, neighbors, native peoples, artists, and so many friends from the past. Yes I am truly blessed and so thankful for everyone.
I would like to say “thank you” especially to Edna Dixon and all her family who have stood by my me for so very long and have helped me in so many ways beyond just believing in me. I warned Edna when she reached out to me that people would not understand. Some would judge her because I was in prison. She followed her heart and did it anyway. All of my family and I have truly been blessed by her dedication and help in every way to make all this happen. I would probably still be in prison if it wasn’t for her.
I want to thank all of you on Ghost Dancer & Friends and Ghost’s Thoughts and wisdom for all of your interest, friendships, help, and support in every way. Believe it or not each time any of you have taken a moment to read or comment, It has helped beyond measure. When you’ve gone a step further to help in writing letters complaining about the lack of treatment or other times I was being denied something I needed while I was in prison, you all helped get changes made.
Since my release, I appreciate all of you who bought jewelry or sent money to help keep me afloat and surviving. Thank You! Thank You all for all that you have done to make my days easier, help me and help my family! I still have a lot to overcome, but I will succeed.
Finding a Place in the Wider World
By the time 6 months had passed the pace of our lives had begun to level out a little. I was in between surgeries and the time was right for a little new adventure. Mom and Judy came to join us for a three-day weekend in April at Musical Echoes Native American Flute Festival in Fort Walton Beach, FL. Here I was able to participate; I made many new friends and got acquainted with all the performers. The festival planners were gracious enough to let me have some stage time to sing and play my drum and do a little story telling. This was a wonderful affirmation for me. I was well accepted by everyone I met and invited to return next year as a scheduled performer.
When Spirit Leads
I am blessed, truly blessed by Spirit and will continue walking my spiritual path. Wherever Spirit leads me I will follow and I will do whatever I’m asked to do.
Since I got home, I have been talking to everyone I meet associated with the VA and the veterans I see around home about an idea I have been thinking of for years that will benefit all veterans and first responders. My idea has always been received with enthusiasm and I have been assured there is a real need for the plan I propose.
During that beautiful weekend at Musical Echoes I took the opportunity to talk to the musicians gathered there about my idea and enlist all the support I could. Once again my idea was warmly accepted and several assured me they would be happy to participate.
The Spirit RunCrying, Cleansing, Releasing & Healing Ceremonies
For Veterans and First Responders with PTSD
The Spirit Run is a time-honored tradition among the indigenous people of North America. It is not a competition but rather an opportunity for people of all ages and abilities, from the strongest to the weakest, to strive as one, united in prayer, toward a common goal for the honor and benefit of all. In the old days, acting as one, the strongest might have physically carried an elder or disabled person. In modern times, the stronger ones might push the weak unable to walk in the same spirit.
Historically, the sweat lodge (Inipi, meaning Breath of Spirit) in which the associated healing ceremonies are held began as a tradition of the plains tribes of North America. In recent years the custom of sweating ceremonies has spread across the country and beyond with many variations reflecting the needs and values of the local community.
Both the Spirit Run and the Sweat Lodge Ceremonies are sacred practices that help each participant learn the lessons of prayer, sacrifice, humbleness, and cleansing and build a stronger community of more balanced individuals supporting one another.
I have dreamed of this Spirit Run for all disabled, wounded, retired veterans, their families, first responders and their families who are in need, for all the different communities, cities, states, and I hope to see it spread all across this country.
In Native tradition it is our responsibility to help, provide, and look after all of these. It is also my and others responsibility to teach and educate others about these ancient traditional ways of healing and providing in all these matters.
In September 2022, I was invited to attend a barbeque following a United Way-sponsored Suicide Awareness Walk at Pensacola State College. The United Way Veteran’s Group invited me to come and play my drum and sing and then lay out my idea for the annual Spirit Run/Healing Sweat Lodge.
The day was very successful. I did some singing and drumming and everyone enjoyed it. I got to talk with lot of important people from the community and veteran’s groups about my vision. Everyone loved the idea and I believe it is going to be a great success. We’re going to have lots of backing; I will be meeting with city and county officials and other organizations that can help and hopefully a date will be set sometime in the near future, probably Spring of 2023.
Closing the Sacred Circle
You may not know this, but I try to live each day as if it is my last. And I must give of myself to walk with Spirit in everything. I wake up in constant prayer, I pray all day long and go to sleep praying. Truly I give thanks for all that has been given to me, helped me, and for all those in my life and those who will come into my life. I trust in Spirit to put those I need in my path.
Each morning I wake up hours before daylight and go outside to begin my prayers. I pray out loud till after the wonderful sun has risen and blessed each of us with love and life. As I sit and listen to Spirit and watch all of my relations come to life and begin their day I am so grateful, for this is a true blessing that has been denied to me for so many decades. I truly enjoy just being able to step outside to pray again and no matter the weather – rain, storms, sleet, snow or heat – nothing will stop me from greeting each day in this way.
Many believed that I would die in prison and gave up on me. But here I am. I am home, I am free at last, and I have a dream to carry me into the future. Truly I am blessed by all who love me, believe in me, support me, and help me each and every day. I thank each of you as I thank Spirit for making this happen.
Editor’s Post Script:
The War Veteran Comes Home
When Ghost returned to Pensacola after his compassionate release from prison, he was very quickly identified by the Veterans’ Administration as being eligible for full medical benefits. Soon after, as he began to meet more and more veterans he would talk about his vision for a spirit run and healing lodge for the benefit of veterans and first responders still suffering from the trauma of war and all types of disasters. Discovering that many of the vets he met were also American Indians, his acceptance into the veterans community grew even stronger. Word of Ghost’s history spread quickly and amazing things started to happen.
One day when he reported to the VA hospital for an appointment, Ghost was totally surprised to discover that the staff and residents had covertly planned to honor him. Ghost could not hold back the tears as he was wheeled around the halls receiving salutes and honors from everyone. The honor was overwhelming and Ghost was touched to the heart.
The next day when Ghost reported to another VA facility for an appointment he was greeted by an honor guard of Native Americans. These men introduced themselves and welcomed him home with gifts of Navy gear, hats and shirts etc. They invited him to join their organization and Ghost said he would be honored and to just tell him how he could help.
A week later, on Tuesday, August 23, 2022 when Ghost reported to the VA for physical therapy, he was once again greeted by the same gentlemen from the Thunderbird Honor Guard.
Among the most distinguished of Vietnam veterans, Ghost was once again honored by Lt. Colonel George Dodge, U. S. Marines, Special Forces and Silver Star recipient. (Cheyenne) and Master Sergeant Donny Kimmel, U.S. Marines, Special Forces, recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, Silver Star and Purple Heart. (Cherokee)
These American Indian heroes conferred the highest honor to a brother veteran of the Vietnam war with the presentation of this beautiful lapel pin that Ghost will treasure forever. In return, from his personal walking stick, Ghost removed two spotted eagle feathers and presented them in honor of these men’s services. These feathers were from the left and right wings of the same eagle and will be attached to staffs he will make for them. Ghost will replace the feathers on his own staff from other feathers from the same bird symbolically forming a connection to remember their brotherhood.
As a spiritual leader and the newest member of the Thunderbird Honor Guard, Ghost’s role will include ceremonial services for other Vietnam Vets who take the walk. The Guard will also play an active role in the Spirit Runs planned for the future.
The Covid-19 pandemic hit all the prisons hard early in 2020. By April 1st all normal activities had ceased at Talladega and we found ourselves on total lockdown with no relief for months. There was no fast-track out for the most vulnerable people but we were urged to start the cumbersome process to apply for a compassionate release. I applied for help through a program set up by FAMM, an activist organization, to match applicants with attorneys willing to represent them pro bono.
My case was not taken, so I decided to go ahead with a pro se motion. Since I had been convicted in two separate federal courts, I would need to submit motions to both courts. With the help of friends and family writing letters of support, we had all the necessary documentation ready to file in September 2020.
The federal judge in Florida who presided over my primary case wasted no time in responding, and with very thoughtful reasoning, granted my release. When authorities at the prison learned of this, they like everyone else, began to prepare thinking the court in Mississippi would follow suit shortly. This was not to happen however. It would take another full year before the judge reluctantly granted my release only after repeated emergency notifications of multiple episodes of cardiac arrest putting my very life in imminent danger.
Finally after more than 26 years, with my health now in shambles from the continued physical and mental stress of total isolation the sudden ruling caught the prison authorities off-guard. Much of the earlier paperwork had been discarded and chaos set in as the staff scrambled to prepare for my immediate release.
I was told different stories about how I would be transported home after being cleared to travel by medical due to my poor health and handicaps. First I was told that U.S. Marshals would drive me home to Florida in a handicap van. Then later while I was still waiting for them to complete the release process I was given another story that a special handicap equipped bus would take me to Florida. I had little time to even contact my family before my communications were cut off so I was never able to give anyone a clear idea of when, where or how I would arrive.
In actuality, neither of these things happened. Instead, I was literally kicked out the door. Fully chained, shackled and black-boxed as tightly as possible, I was driven in a prison van by guards to the bus station in Birmingham, Alabama. To make matters worse, the guards made a production of unloading me in my wheelchair and removing the shackles right in front of crowds of people. In a voice loud enough for all to hear, one of the guards told a cop standing there to keep a sharp eye on me, that I was a dangerous terrorist and should never have been released from prison. Where, I wondered, did that come from?
So everyone in the bus station heard this and yeah, it was obvious they all were staring at me. It would be hard to explain any other way what this man’s words and actions did to me and the fear he put into everyone around. Think about a wild wolf, I mean a really wild wolf, that was captured and placed into a tiny cage and kept there for decades. Then suddenly the door is opened wide. For a moment the wolf doesn’t even know he is free and can step outside. This was me; I kept looking to see where they were hiding, just waiting to come snatch me back or outright shoot me.
So I sat. I didn’t even go to the bathroom. I didn’t have enough money to really eat anything or even buy more than a bottle of water. They gave me a few dollars that was supposed to provide for two meals but the price of food in the vending machines for anything to eat was so expensive that I didn’t buy anything. I don’t know how or where they expected me to purchase anything to call a meal. My bus was not due for hours so I waited, fully aware of the stares. I could feel the people’s energies of distaste, hate, and anger towards me. I just smiled and listened to beautiful Native music on my MP3 player. Hour after hour I sat there waiting.
At one point, several young thugs began aggravating a middle-aged woman, poking at her and trying to pressure her to go over in the bathroom with them. I watched them grabbing her in the private areas, while the cops all stood around ignoring her pleas. The cops just looked at the guys then turned and went outside. This only made them more aggressive.
Finally, I could not let this go on anymore. My duty as a spiritual warrior and as a man could not stand by and let this happen. So I wheeled my wheelchair over to them and stood up. I told them to back off and leave this woman alone. She had said, “No” so I asked them what part of that didn’t they understand. Now these young men were there when I was released from the prison van so they knew and heard what the guards had said. I was nowhere near physically able to fight all of them, but I would have if necessary. Yes, I realized I was risking my freedom, but my morals made it mandatory that I do something. Luckily they backed off not liking it and spitting all kinds of bad words at me but that didn’t matter. I have thick skin and I just ignored them.
I told the woman she could sit by me if she wanted to and I would make sure no one bothered her. She thanked me and she did sit right there with me the whole time. We were both headed to Mobile so we were waiting for the same bus. When we finally boarded, she sat in the seat next to mine all night to Mobile. The bus made several stops along the way and each time she offered to get me something to eat or drink. I declined; didn’t want her to think she owed me anything. I just did what any decent person would have done.
It was 5:00 am and dark when we got Mobile, Alabama. The place looked mighty rough; the bus station was literally closed, there was no security and there were thugs and drug addicts hanging out all around. There I was left to sit there amid all this until the next bus arrived. One person even overdosed; an ambulance finally came and took him away. He didn’t look too good.
So a few stressful events took place on the way to Pensacola. I managed to avoid any physical altercations luckily but had to stand up and confront different ones at times. I can look mean when I have to and standing to my full height can be seen as ready and willing to defend myself. Bullies only pick on easy prey or what they believe to be easy prey. Sometimes the prey can be pretty intimidating when provoked.
Finally the bus came and I got to Pensacola early in the morning just as the work-day was getting started. I knew Cat didn’t know when or how I would arrive and I was anxious to get there and contact her to come and get me. Everything had changed so much and I had no clue where I was actually. The bus station was closed and there were no pay phones any more. I had been given money for a taxi to Cat’s house but there was no taxi in sight.
I saw a person nearby talking on a cell phone and when he finished I asked him if he could call someone for me. He handed me his phone and said, “Here, call them yourself.” When I explained I did not know how to use one, he looked at me and said, “No way! You’re joking me right?” I told him I had never even seen a cell phone and sure had no clue how to use one. So I gave him Cat’s number and he dialed it for me. I waited anxiously to hear her voice but all I got was her answering machine. Her voice said I could leave a message so I did and told her what I could see because there was no road or street signs anywhere. I told her I would be waiting here for her or try to get a taxi.
I waited about 20 minutes and not knowing if she was even awake yet or heard my message, I decided I must take action. I was not happy when I couldn’t find anything. Now I could not wheel my chair forward with my arms. I normally had to use my feet to go forward or backward. So I pushed myself backwards in my wheel chair, down the road, around a curve and into the entrance to a McDonalds with the idea that someone there would call a cab for me or call Cat again.
I got inside, waited in line and asked the lady at the register if she would call me a taxi. She said she would when she got the time. Then she asked if I wanted to order something? So I figured maybe if I bought something she would make the call for me faster so I ordered a coffee and waited. I watched and waited and kept on waiting for more than 30 minutes. She didn’t appear to be doing anything so I asked her again if she would please call me a taxi. Again she said she would when she wasn’t busy. She just looked at me so I guess standing there waiting for a customer to come in was being busy.
Finally I got tired of waiting so I wheeled myself backwards back to the street, around the curve and up the hill. The traffic kept flying by not even paying attention to me in a wheel chair trying to make it up the side of the road. Some people got mad, blowing their horns and hollering at me but how else was I to get up the hill? There was no sidewalk and I could not push myself backwards in a wheel chair up hill in the grass.
Several times I had to stop for rest; by now I was exhausted. Finally I made it up the hill almost into the bus station parking lot when I saw a vehicle flying toward me with its loud horn just a-blowing. The car pulled into the parking lot, the door flew open and there was Cat running towards me crying. She didn’t care how rough I looked, all sweaty and exhausted, she just hugged me.
Like a wave, the words in her heart rolled over me, “I can’t believe it’s you; you are exactly here! I never thought this day would come. Am I dreaming?”
I laughed and said, “I think I am.”
Cat said we had better get out of the road and get in the car. So we did, then on the drive home, she explained how she had hurried off to the grocery store not thinking I would be there so early. When she got home she saw the phone flashing; hearing the message, she took off immediately to come get me.
Now it had been decades since Cat and I had been together. We had each been thru so much in all those years and it would take time for us to adjust to one other. We could not know what the future would hold or the huge changes we would both need to make to find the peace and happiness we had known so long ago.
We knew all about my health issues but at that point had no idea what to do other than using herbs and other natural remedies and a nutritious diet to heal my body. We had no idea that so quickly my life would require non-stop appointments as my supervised release officer and my resource officer put me in contact with the Veteran’s Administration, Social Security, and the United Way Veterans to arrange for all the medical care I so desperately needed for my cancers, kidney and heart issues, eye and dental needs not to mention the orthopedic surgeries I would need for my crippled legs and arms. To date I have had three major surgeries and more are pending.
Besides all this there were other needs to be met. All I owned were the clothes on my back, I would need an ID and a driver’s license, something to wear, and so much more. Just trying to adjust to being free and experiencing how much the world had changed was a mind blowing experience. In truth I was in total shock and soon Cat would be as well. It would take all the faith, strength and courage we both could muster to get through the next nine months.
Note: Only after my release did I discover that to this day I’m still listed by the FBI as a terrorist stemming from my small involvement with AIM as a teenager in the 1970ies. (See Chapters 12, 13, 24, 25, 26)
Today I’m thinking of my children and their mates, all now in their midlife years, some retired, some thinking hard about it. I watch with interest as each one embarks on the next phase of life, taking risks, setting new goals and following their dreams.
I think too about Ghost Dancer and Walks On The Grass, both good people I have come to know and love so well. They are close in age to my own four but the challenges and struggles of their lives have been very different. Both have missed out on the best years of their lives locked away in prison. Now free or preparing for release with little material wealth to call their own, both are bravely determined to follow their dreams for better lives in an unfamiliar world that may not even welcome them.
Thinking of all these, brings to mind the challenges of my own midlife dreams and the course of my journey. Nearly forty years ago as I was seeing my youngest off to college, the home nest felt mighty empty, and as I looked out ahead of me all I could see was the possibility of 50 empty years. All my life, I had never been anyone other than someone’s daughter, someone’s wife, or someone’s mother. Even though I was an RN with useful work to do, nursing was not my choice or my passion. Thanks to my faithful, hard-working husband, some of my childhood dreams had come true. I had a good life and my future was secure, but still I felt restless and unfulfilled. For several years the words to a song had frequently played in my head: “Is this all there is?”
One day as I browsed through the “self-help” shelves at my local library searching for answers, a tiny book caught my eye: Conversations On The Edge Of Eternityby Mary Kate Blackmar. I checked out the little book and in one afternoon read what this elder had to say. Several parallels in our core interests captured my attention; like my beloved Grandmother and many generations before, Kate Blackmar was a Quaker. Her thoughts on religion, the bible and the Quaker point of view were most interesting. However the conversations that truly inspired me were the whys and how’s of this woman’s many remarkable achievements, all made after the age of 50 beginning with going back to college. Apparently at some point in her life, Kate Blackmar had also wondered, “Is this all there is?”
In that moment I knew what I needed to do and in the footsteps of my children ahead of me, this mother was off to community college to discover who she was and what she wanted to do when she grew up. From day one I fell in love with learning so many things and writing all those essays gave me many happy hours. I heard the groans of my young classmates who were not having so much fun. Just like Kate Blackmar, I could see how some aspects of a liberal education are wasted on the young. Just starting out in life, young people are likely to be more concerned about gaining practical skills for earning a living than delving into history and literature.
Of course individuals do not all develop and mature in exactly the same way; like flowers some bloom early, some bloom late, and in a whole array of shapes, colors, and talents. One fact I came to realize is that maturity, discernment, and perspective matter a whole lot and one must truly be hungry to appreciate the wisdom and knowledge handed down through the ages by the great sages and poets in history.
In my youth I had been trained to be a nurse, but I lacked the experience to fully appreciate the benefits of a liberal education. Moving on to university level and still snapping up every course that interested me, I finally had to face the fact that a new career path was not my goal. I just loved learning and writing. My advisors wisely suggested that if I want to write, the best thing for me to do was write and keep writing. I also learned it does not necessarily take a higher degree for us late bloomers to find the direction we need. Seekers have plenty of opportunity to self-educate. That’s what libraries are for and with the advent of the internet, options for learning are more available today than they were then.
Now all too rapidly I find myself approaching the age Kate Blackmar was when she shared her wisdom at the edge of eternity and I’m still so glad her voice was there to inspire me. I cannot compare my humble path with hers. The level of her accomplishments were out of my reach but in following her lead I found the path I needed for me. Looking back, I’m pretty amazed by the course of the second half of my life in a totally different way. Learning to trust my own intelligence and discovering what I most loved – putting word to paper – as it were, gave my outlook an enormous boost.
I always knew I’d never publish the next great novel or even dream up an interesting short story. Among my friends there are several who can turn a clever phrase far better than I could ever imagine. I learned in school that journalism was definitely not my cup of tea and writing for children wasn’t either. Still, write I must, so my next task was to discover what my focus should be. Following the advice of my college counselor, I started out by volunteering at a raptor rehabilitation facility and creating a newsletter writing stories about the birds and the program.
Then believe it or not, my first real insight into where this all would lead came through a private reading by the late well known and respected psychic, Bobby Drinnon. Though we had never met, when I went for my reading, Bobby could see the emotional blocks from my past and he knew why I was there. He told me I should be a writer. I can still hear his next words: “You must write from passion.” That was amazing enough, but the real shocker came when he went on to tell me he saw two, maybe three American Indians who were or would be an important part of my life. To my knowledge, I didn’t even know an Indian, so I took that prediction with a grain of salt.
Five years would pass before the first Indian contacted me. The message came out of the blue from two states away. This man had been a high school classmate more than 40 years before. Like many Creeks in the south whose ancestors had escaped the removal, he kept quiet about his heritage because of the hostile attitudes toward Native people. Later in life he had embarked upon an ambitious idea to help educate people on the history and life ways of his Southeastern Creek Indian ancestors – a topic barely mentioned in southern schools. This chance meeting and my agreement to help would set the course for my growth and passion as a writer. I wrote letters, grants, educational materials, and newsletters, whatever was needed to help make “Bearheart’s Dream” a success. During the next 15 years I would come to know and work with many Creek-heritage people across the country.
Shortly after Bearheart’s death in 2013 one more twist of circumstance would lead me directly to Ghost Dancer and later to Walks On The Grass, the two Natives who have become such an important part of my life. I would continue to write from passion in all that I undertook, especially in my edits of these men’s work. Their teachings, legal briefs and the deeply moving life stories they have to tell make me keenly aware that my work must be thoughtful, informed and accurate if it is to fulfill a higher purpose.
Charting new territory in life is at best a bumpy road, especially when you have no clue where you’re going or the challenges ahead. I have taken many leaps of faith to find my own niche this past quarter-century. The path has never been easy; with every undertaking there has been a learning process, emotional stress, and sometimes conflict. Too often I’ve felt very alone and as I reflect on the bitterness and controversy, the stress once again overcomes sending me into bouts of depression, anxiety and panic.
Nothing in my life could ever compare to the extremes of suffering Ghost and Walks experienced. The qualities of love, kindness, respect and courage I found in them despite their suffering touched my soul. I am finally learning to stay calm, follow my heart, go with the flow and let the Great Mystery guide me through the storms. While I still have sorrows and regrets I am at peace knowing I have always given my best and that is all anyone can do in life.
Most surely the rewards have been great. I am secure in the love and respect of a few precious friends and family who make my heart sing. Each day is a new beginning, I’m still walking, always learning, always looking for something to do. I surely have a far better appreciation of my mother and grandmothers and so many women who continue to be creative and productive well into the final years of their lives. There is never a dull moment and I truly look forward to the challenges and gifts of my tomorrows. epd
September 28, 2022 Post Script
My inspiration for writing this piece was my observation of my own children and their spouses as they embark on their well-after-50 journeys. At the time, my son, Eric and his wife, Aimee were in the process of reaching for a great dream for their retirement years. Together they had just purchased a small farm and had begun developing Reflection Tree Art FarmHere in which they would combine their interests in permaculture farming practices, living close to the land, and their love of creating beautiful art. Their dream was to develop a retreat where all kinds of people could come to learn, to grow and to heal, far from the stresses of today’s world.
When I posted on September 1st, I could not fathom that just 12 days later, Aimee would be severely injured an a car crash while on her way to work as a 2nd grade teacher. She would lose her struggle for life just 3 days later. I cannot begin to describe the personal pain Aimee’s death heaped upon our beloved Eric, her son Eli, a college freshman, and all her family, as well as our family and untold numbers of friends, fellow teachers and students who loved Aimee dearly.
If anything positive is to be found in this tragedy, let it be a reminder to us all that we cannot take tomorrow for granted. Let us live each day to the fullest, putting aside petty distractions, practice the art of embracing each moment as an opportunity to give and receive love, kindness and compassion with a whole heart. epd
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.
Well my friends this is gonna be the last edition from me until after I’m out and able to start writing again. I figure a few days ought to see me to having the wherewithal. Smile. At that time I’ll be telling ya all about my trials and tribulations, and experiences as I work through all the challenges ahead. I’ll be writing down what I’m thinking, feeling and doing, and how I’m getting it done.
In these final days, I won’t just abandon you; I want you to understand that I’ll be wound up tighter than a sweat lodge drum, a million thoughts an hour and like 5 or 6 coming into focus at a time, all those pre-release need to do’s, want to do’s, have to do’s and grudgingly will do’s as well. I have bombarded my cellie with questions by the dozen. I can’t tell you how many times he has told me I will have all the answers to any questions in the palm of my hand once I get a phone but still he continues to answer my every dumb query: Can the phone play the radio thru the speaker if I want it to? Is there a way to make my phone into an alarm clock? What’s a virtual assistant and how do I get one?
See, all the stuff you take for granted is about to be new and uncharted territory for me, so I’m busy as all get along. Like just a few minutes ago I finished addressing a box of stuff I want to keep so I will be mailing it to myself the day before I leave, but if I go to the mail room AFTER lunch to mail it, then it won’t leave till the next day’s mail or on the same day as me, so that’s pretty smart. I was gonna mail it to my brother’s house but then I realized that would have been too much of a hassle. Then he would have had to make a trip into town with it to bring it to me at the halfway house which is on the 2nd floor above a separate a substance abuse re-hab place with lots of clients.
So it’s all coming down to the wire and I was thinking this morning I have way less time left to serve than I have served as punishment for incident reports I have gotten throughout the years. To me that seems crazy, and everything is awhirl for me right now. As the days go by it seems like they are slow and fast at the same time. Slow because I want to get more info in my head on some of the things I expect to encounter, or things I just think of it and a few questions I know won’t be able to be answered till just before I leave. Last week I got my actual travel itinerary and it feels good to know exactly what to expect.
ITINERARY: Birmingham, AL to Springfield, IL – Est. 21 hours total
Aug 30: Arr. B’ham bus station early in day (with sack lunch)
6-hour wait in B’ham to catch evening bus (bringing a book to read and extra water)
Arr. Memphis middle of the night (3-hour layover - bringing snacks)
Wee hours to St. Louis (1-hour layover in AM)
Aug 31: Arrive Springfield, IL 12:30 pm
Catch a cab to HWH Arrive by 1:30 pm
Also included: Cash for three $7 meals and gratuities (Are they kidding me? BOP fantasy land)
Will wear gv'mt issue Dickies and a polo shirt (will forego the tacky fake patent leather shoes and wear my comfy old Nikes)
Will carry all medications, testing supplies and Insulin for PM & AM
Will bring my walker w/seat and cane
Will carry my most valued/sacred possessions in pocket or small bag
Will donate everything else to an old friend if I get the chance to meet up with him and/or my cellie.
So from now thru the first week of September at least, I’m going to be preparing for my actual release. After that I’m sure Sings will have plenty to edit and post on my behalf so that those of you who have been faithful readers, dropping in weekly can continue to see what kinda antics or rigamarole is astir. I just want to say thank you for being interested in me and my story. I don’t know all your names right off the top but I have seen them from time to time when Sings relays your messages, and responses. They mean a whole lot.
It’s truly touching that you find time out of your days, your lives, to connect with me. It means something because I can tell you, it isn’t money or material things that mean anything for real; what really matters is time and how you spend it and who you spend it with. That is meaningful, believe me and just knowing that each of you spends some of your time with me is wonderful. For this I thank each and every one of you. Once my circumstances change and I’m able to visit the website and Facebook, maybe I will be able to speak directly, answer questions or whatnot, but I’m not gonna count my chickens ahead of hatching. Like I always tell Sings, I’ll burn that bridge when I cross it, so I won’t have to go back and do it again. Smile.
And one last note, last night I had a long conversation with Booger. I explained to him what’s about to happen and told him he could come with me on the bus if he wants. As usual, he called me Daddy-O and told me he’d think about it… but I know he isn’t about to miss out on an adventure! You know for so many years Booger was as much a part of me as my arms or legs, so I let him know that I would never abandon him because he was there for me when I needed him most, when I was down and hurting. Booger has been disappearing a lot lately, running off chasing the prison cat or whatever, still sometimes he shows up to let me know he’ll be around if I need him too.
Sort of like all of you who have all been there with your kind words and your thoughtful critiques and opinions, you never abandoned me, and I won’t do it to you. My circumstances will be changing but I want to take you and this with me and I will be here for you in any way I am able. In the meantime, please pray for others and be kind; one random act of kindness can make a huge difference in someone’s life. I promise you this is so. As for me, I’m gonna keep pushing… Hey! try this out, go listen to REO Speedwagon’s song, “Keep Pushing On.” Heck, I think I’ll go get my mp3 player and take my own advice… Have the bestest kind of day…….talk with ya soon, very-very soon…smiles as big as possible…