Bury the Truth at Wounded Knee

Dennis Banks’s new memoir—and the murder that won’t go away

Banks and Russell Means--a former California dance instructor with roots in South Dakota's Pine Ridge reservation--emerged as AIM's stars. Tough, handsome, and charismatic, they shared a gift for personal reinvention. They were stylish dressers. They were articulate. They knew how to play to the cameras--a gift that would ultimately prove useful in garnering legal and financial support from the white liberal establishment.

In its heyday, no group had a better flair for guerilla politics than AIM. They joined an Indian occupation of the old Alcatraz prison outside San Francisco. They marched across the country. They took over (and trashed) the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C.

But it was on the Pine Ridge reservation, home to the Oglala Sioux, that AIM would have its greatest impact. The tribe's forebears include legendary figures such as Crazy Horse and Red Cloud. In the early '70s, however, Pine Ridge was among the poorest, most violent reservations in the country. At the epicenter of a political crisis was the hamlet of Wounded Knee, the spot where a century earlier the U.S. Army's Seventh Cavalry killed 290 Indians in one of the old West's most notorious massacres.

University of Oklahoma Press

It was fitting perhaps that Pine Ridge--and Wounded Knee--would become the site of AIM's greatest triumphs and its worst tragedies. Now, some of the darkest details of what happened there, 28 years ago, are starting to come to light. Having helped launch AIM, and having played a role in many of its most important moments, Dennis Banks would seem to have an unmatched ability to tell the movement's story.

In his newly published memoir, Ojibwa Warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American Indian Movement (with Richard Erdoes), Banks devotes much attention to "the Knee." The book begins with a description of how Banks and some compatriots escaped from Wounded Knee. (Aspects of Banks's version of that event strain credulity for the secular-minded among us. For instance, he writes that after a prayer ceremony, he heard the crying and singing from the ghosts of those slaughtered at Wounded Knee in 1890; and he claims that his escape from the Knee, under cover of darkness, was aided by a spell cast by a medicine man.) The book ends with the account of a 25th-anniversary observance at Wounded Knee. In between, Banks devotes another 50 pages to chronicling the occupation itself.

Given Wounded Knee's central role in AIM history, all this is to be expected. For AIM, the 71-day standoff with the FBI and U.S. Marshals represented a high-water mark. It was a bold assertion of Indian sovereignty and resistance and it captured the nation's attention. But Wounded Knee and its violent aftermath would also lead to AIM's fragmentation and, in the view of critics, its moral collapse.

Not that you would get that idea from Banks's memoir. For all its high-minded rhetoric and invocations of Indian spirituality, Ojibwa Warrior reads less like Black Elk Speaks than like a contemporary political autobiography, by turns self-serving and self-aggrandizing and littered with pieties. Difficult facts are glossed over and Banks (or perhaps it's his 93-year-old co-author Erdoes) can be sloppy with details. Discussing the disproportionate rate of incarceration of Native Americans in Minnesota, for instance, he writes that Indians represent about 1 percent of the state's population but "more than one third" of the prison population. Actually, according to the most recent numbers from the Minnesota Department of Corrections, the correct figure is 6.5 percent. At another point, Banks--who still lives in Minnesota--refers to a nonexistent entity called the "Minneapolis state prison."

In a more personally embarrassing gaffe, Banks can't keep straight the number of daughters he had with ex-wife Kamook. At one point it is four, at another three.

But it is on the subject of Wounded Knee and its aftermath that Banks seems least forthcoming. "We were the prophets, the messengers, the fire starters," he writes of AIM's role. "Wounded Knee awakened not only the conscience of all Native Americans but also of white Americans nationwide." Fair enough. But Wounded Knee, and the militant response of both the government and AIM, also set in motion a chain of events that got people killed.

To be sure, Banks provides the broad strokes of the story: When AIM and a group of reservation dissidents occupied the tiny hamlet, he explains, Pine Ridge was already engulfed in conflict. The tribal government had engaged in a campaign of repression against the so-called traditionals using a paramilitary police force--known as the GOONS, or Guardians of the Oglala Nation. The GOONS also targeted AIM members, who by then had also landed in the cross hairs of the FBI.

As any veteran activist will tell you (again and again), the FBI doesn't fight fair. The agency routinely engaged in a practice known as "bad jacketing," in which FBI-backed infiltrators would suggest that AIM members were actually informers. That tactic--along with the government's unrelenting prosecution of anyone affiliated with AIM--fueled the growing paranoia within the movement. It was in this atmosphere that Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash, an AIM activist from Nova Scotia, left her home and family, snuck across the battle lines, and joined the occupation at Wounded Knee

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