LEONARD PELTIER, A Sioux Indian, has been an inmate of the federal prison system since 1977, serving two life sentences for allegedly having killed two FBI agents during the 1973 siege at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. In the opening pages of Prison Writings, a collection of essays that's part manifesto and part memoir, Peltier asserts his innocence, writing simply, "Innocence has a single voice that can only say over and over, 'I didn't do it.' Guilt has a thousand voices, all of them lies." Peltier might have devoted this book to pleading his case before a public that, it seems, has largely forgotten about him. He does not. Instead, in his preface, former Attorney General Ramsey Clark makes a compelling argument for why we should believe Peltier, a case also made by Peter Matthiessen in his much-litigated book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse.
Instead, Peltier charts the course of his political activism, describing his evolution from a young man on a South Dakota reservation who wanted what other young men in his circumstances wanted -- a car, a job -- to a political organizer keenly aware of the injustices visited in the past and present on America's native peoples. Peltier has much to say about American Indian politics, a dauntingly complex set of issues. Among other things, he insists that the U.S. government follow a Canadian model in offering reparations for historical wrongs. He also advances the plausible view that the siege at Wounded Knee was a sideshow meant to disguise a deal through which a uranium-rich portion of the Pine Ridge Sioux reservation was ceded to the federal government.
Writing more personally, Peltier recounts the intricacies of living behind bars. "As a houseguest in hell," he writes, "you learn that the devil has many mansions, and you keep shuttling between them for no known reason." His fine book describes those mansions in chilling detail, and it is sure to stir both controversy and renewed attention to Peltier's ongoing quest for freedom.