When Muhammad Ali Saved One of Indian Country’s Most Honored Spiritual Leaders

Muhammad Ali during his peace mission to Iraq in December 1990.

Muhammad Ali during his peace mission to Iraq in late 1990.

Exclusive to Native News Online

Remembering when Muhammad Ali secured the release of Chief Looking Horse, six American Indian elders and delegation from Saddam Hussein.

Published June 4, 2016

So much has and will be said about the “Greatest of All Time” upon his transition to the Spirit World, and so much more should be said and learned from his courage and dedication to peace. This may be an episode that will get little attention, but speaks to the power of prayer and peace embodied by both men in this account.

It was the during the countdown to the Gulf War, and Chief Arvol Looking Horse, six elders, a reporter, and a negotiator traveled to Baghdad, Iraq on a peace mission. Chief Looking Horse is the 19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota Nations, and is an inspirational leader and advisor for GOAL Tribal Coalition. The intention of Chief Looking Horse and the delegation was to hold ceremony and pray with the sacred canupa (pipe) in Iraq, knowing that war was on the horizon and that Americans were being held hostage under the threat of being used by Saddam’s regime as “human shields.”

“When we arrived, Iraqi soldiers took us to what they called a ‘Peace Camp.’ It was not a place of peace. They put us in a flimsy trailer infested with mice as big as rats, and we were fed only wilted lettuce and an orange looking soup that we had to eat, since there was nothing else. When our return tickets were torn to pieces in front of us and they took our passports, I suddenly realized that our lives were on the line,” recounts Chief Looking Horse.

Chief Arvol Looking Horse

Chief Arvol Looking Horse

The situation deteriorated when the reporter was seized and violently interrogated. Upon being delivered back to the ‘Peace Camp’ he informed the group that they would probably not make it out alive. “After four days I felt helpless,” recalls Chief Looking Horse. “Looking for guidance, I turned off the lights in my room to distance myself from everything. Every other time I’d turned the lights off, the mice would run all over me but this time they didn’t. My heart felt like it was scratching inside with pain. I cried inside, praying for deliverance. And then, suddenly, a Grandfather’s presence came into the room. I heard a ceremonial rattle pound all over the walls and I felt a sense of being home once again inside myself. I immediately jumped to my feet and told everyone that we had to pray. We felt the presence of the Grandfathers and knew immediately that we would be okay. A sense of peace came into the room,” he remembers.

Shortly after completing the prayer with the sacred canupa, the delegation was hustled into limousines and delivered to a government building. “Amazingly, we were greeted by two lines of saluting Iraqi soldiers,” says Chief Looking Horse. The group was again asked why they had traveled to Iraq, and they explained once more that they had been instructed through ceremony to travel there, to pray for peace. “We fulfilled our commitment by then sitting in a sacred circle with one of their religious leaders,” Chief Looking Horse explains, after they were finally permitted to pray with the sacred pipe. “They invited us to stay one more day to meet with Saddam Hussein, but I replied, ‘Our work here is fulfilled and we’re ready to go home.’ I knew that our purpose was done and that, if we stayed more than the four days, we would be in great danger since our ceremony of protection was over.”

Unbeknownst to Chief Looking Horse, Muhammad Ali had traveled to Baghdad in an attempt to secure the release of the Americans being held. During the mission, for a period Ali suffered significantly from not having access to Parkinson’s medication. The administration of President George H. W. Bush criticized Ali for engaging in “loose-cannon diplomacy” and feared that he was being manipulated for propaganda purposes.

“We were then taken to a fine hotel in Baghdad,” continues Chief Looking Horse. “As we walked in, Muhammad Ali came off the elevator greeting us with a huge smile, boxing the air in a playful way as he approached us. We hugged him and learned he had helped to set us free. Our peace mission was now complete and we would return to our homeland,” concludes Chief Looking Horse.

Muhammad Ali had met with Saddam on November 29, 1990, and the hostages all returned home on December 2. On January 16, 1991 the United States  began Desert Storm. “They don’t owe me nothin’,” Ali responded, when asked by reporters if he expected anything from those he’d liberated. “They don’t owe me nothin’.”

Ali not only saved Chief Arvol Looking Horse’s life, those of his delegation, and the hostages, but the lives of those Chief Looking Horse has helped to save since that time through the power of prayer. Wopila!

David Bearshield is Chairman of GOAL (Guardians of Our Ancestors’ Legacy) Tribal Coalition, currently one of the largest tribal advocacy organizations in North America.





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