Bury the Truth at Wounded Knee

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

Before the Indian civil rights movement, before the Hollywood friendships and the movie auditions, before the FBI shootouts and the fugitive years, before the murder of an idealistic young activist--before all of this, there was a 31-year-old ex-con who was tired of getting arrested at bars. It was 1968 and Dennis Banks, outraged by the abuse of Native Americans at the hands of the Minneapolis police, was determined to do something. His early efforts were pretty modest. After an organizational meeting in the basement of a run-down church, Banks and a ragtag crew of tough young natives painted three old cars bright red. They then donned identical red berets, got their hands on some walkie-talkies, and started patrolling the streets of south Minneapolis. Their goal: to police the police.

In those days, as Banks tells the story, the cops routinely raided the Indian bars along Franklin Avenue, where they'd fill their arrest quotas by indiscriminately rounding up patrons on drunk-and-disorderly charges. Banks figures he was personally caught in such dragnets about 25 times. So sometimes Banks and his partners would spend their evenings standing guard outside the saloons. If they saw cops coming, they would rush inside and alert the customers of an impending raid. If they were too late, they would use cameras to document the arrests.

In the beginning, the Banks group called itself "Concerned Indian Americans." In the antigovernment atmosphere of the late '60s, that acronym--CIA--was unacceptable. So the group picked a new name, one that stuck: the American Indian Movement.

The story of AIM today, as much as it's told, involves the solving of an infamous reservation murder--a subject that once again threatens to put Banks on the wrong side of the law. And so it's easy to forget just how tenuous Indian identity was before the group's emergence. By the standards of the Indian activism of the time, Banks and company's civil rights tactics were radical. This was before the seismic shift in Indian consciousness that occurred in the '70s. The rallying cry of "Native Pride" had not yet become a staple statement of Indian self-expression. Tribal sovereignty was not yet a central buzzword of Indian law. And Indian spiritual practices--sweats, sun dances, and other purifying rituals that had been driven underground--had yet to reemerge.

Two of AIM's founders--Banks and Clyde Bellecourt, a fellow Objibwe from northern Minnesota--have long said the idea of the movement first came to them while they were behind bars. Banks, who was incarcerated from 1966 to 1968, had refused to work a job while in prison. Instead he devoted his time to reading about Indian history and current events. He became intrigued by the new strain of antiauthoritarian politics, especially the Black Panthers. Minnesota Indians, Banks thought, needed a similar organization, a group that wouldn't be afraid to demand justice and, if necessary, take up arms in resistance.

The similarity between the early AIM Patrol and the Black Panthers' Oakland operations was no accident, then. Certainly, there were significant differences between the black and Indian experiences of the day. But for both groups, generations of repression--combined with the burgeoning antiwar movement--turned into radicalism.

The particular circumstances of Banks's childhood were like those of many Indian youths of the day. Born into poverty on the Leech Lake reservation in northern Minnesota, Banks had no contact with his father and was effectively abandoned by his mother, who left him in the care of his devoted grandparents. When he was five, he was shipped off to a government-run boarding school, where he was deprived of family contact and systematically stripped of his Indian identity. He made several escapes before finally returning to his home reservation at 17.

Things didn't get much better from there. With no work prospects, Banks joined the Air Force and was stationed in Japan. There, he married a Japanese woman, fathered a child, and went AWOL. He was arrested and forcibly returned to the U.S.--never again to see his wife or child. After his discharge, Banks settled in Minneapolis. He worked minimum-wage jobs, started a new family, drank too much, and found trouble time and again. But in founding AIM, Banks seemed to find himself.

At the outset, AIM was a youth organization. It was especially attractive to Indians who had been driven off reservations by both endemic poverty and the federal government's post-World War II "termination" policies that sought to break up tribal governments and sever the ties between Indians and their homelands. For many Indians who came of age in the '50s and '60s, life in the big city was an alien and alienating experience--one bound to foment a fiery response.

AIM started as an urban street movement for Minnesota Indians, but it grew--and changed--rapidly. After experiencing his first sweat lodge on a visit to a Lakota reservation in 1969, Banks pushed to incorporate more religiosity into the movement. In short order, the AIM activists were forging alliances with traditional reservation Indians, making common cause in both the fight against corrupt, federally backed tribal governments and the abrogation of Indian treaty rights.

As the movement grew, so did the controversy. Some reservation Indians regarded the AIM leaders as grandstanders, city slickers who stirred up trouble only to leave others to clean up the mess. AIM, they cracked bitterly, stood for "assholes in moccasins." Meanwhile, a lot more white people--including the FBI agents who represented the final law on most reservations--had come to regard AIM as a dangerous and subversive organization.

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.

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

At the time, Aquash was like many younger Indians drawn to AIM: inspired by AIM's spirit of defiance and message of pride, and willing to do whatever was necessary for the cause. From the start, Aquash impressed her compatriots and soon she was an AIM insider. She became a best friend to Banks's wife Kamook and a fellow fugitive from the law. According to many accounts she was also Banks's lover.

When he was once asked about his relationship with Aquash by a Canadian television reporter, Banks responded cryptically: "I don't know if I could say that that was a love affair. If I was to marry somebody and if I had a chance to choose who I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, I would have chosen Anna Mae." When the reporter then questioned him directly about rumors of his involvement in Aquash's disappearance, Banks said, "That would be interesting speculation to say that I ordered her death. No, I couldn't do that. I would have died with her."

But in his memoir, Banks chooses to sidestep the nature of his relationship with Aquash entirely. Granted, he dispatches with the subject of his many other wives and lovers with brevity. Here's the sum total of what he has to say about one affair: "[I met] a striking Navajo girl named Angie Begay. Later on, she and I would form a relationship from which would be born a beautiful daughter, Ariel."

Maybe Banks just has a hard time mastering the details of his apparently very busy romantic life. But glossing over Aquash is strange. After all, Aquash--who was found murdered three years after Wounded Knee--is a central figure in AIM mythology, one of the movement's central icons and the object of a cry that reverberates today: Justice for Anna Mae.

This past February, about 28 years after Aquash's body was discovered in a remote South Dakota ravine, the federal government successfully prosecuted the first person to be charged with her death, a 50-year-old Denver street drunk and former low-level AIM member named Fritz Arlo Looking Cloud. According to the government's version of events, Aquash was executed because people in AIM believed--wrongly, it turns out--that she was an informant. In particular, they feared she might testify against Leonard Peltier, the celebrated AIM activist who would ultimately be convicted in the fatal shooting of two FBI agents on Pine Ridge.

To date, Arlo Looking Cloud and the accused triggerman, John Graham, are the only people who have been charged in the Aquash killing. But no one expects the case to end there. In the government's view--as well as that of various crusaders who have made the Aquash case their calling--Looking Cloud and Graham were mere foot soldiers. The real killers, they've argued, the ones who ought to be held accountable, are the AIM members who allegedly ordered the hit.

During the Looking Cloud trial, Kamook Nichols--Banks's ex-wife--testified that Aquash told her shortly before her disappearance that she felt scared of Peltier and Banks. Nichols also provided testimony about a long-rumored confrontation between Aquash and Peltier at an AIM convention in Farmington, New Mexico, in which Peltier--concerned that Aquash was informing--was said to have put a gun to Aquash's head. (In a similar incident, according to Nichols, an AIM spiritual leader named Leonard Crow Dog kicked Aquash off his property because he thought she was "a Fed.") Most damning, at least to the orthodox AIM view, was Nichols's testimony that Peltier confessed to both her and Aquash that he was the one who shot the two FBI agents.

In Ojibwa Warrior, Banks doesn't really engage any of these thorny contentions--even to deny them in detail. "Annie Mae's murderers have never been identified," he writes, "but some people, former goons and FBI lovers have tried to re-open the case. They try to put the blame for her death on AIM. They will not succeed." Never mind the fact that Anna Mae's murderers have been publicly identified in newspapers, television documentaries, and books for years now. Never mind that even Looking Cloud, in numerous confessions, has admitted that Aquash's murder was an inside job--and that he was there. (Looking Cloud's defense was not that AIM didn't kill Aquash, but merely that he didn't know what was going to happen).

In his memoir, Banks doesn't address such charges at all. But he still works to give AIM a free pass on her death by, conveniently, putting words in the dead woman's mouth: "'I know that I will be killed,'" he quotes Aquash as telling him. "'The FBI won't let an Indian like me live. But remember, it doesn't matter if the FBI kills me or whether my life is snuffed out by one of our own people who believe the rumors the Feds have spread about me. It will always be the FBI that murders me.'"

That is certainly a tidy quote. Not only does it serve to ennoble Aquash--a figure of iconic stature in native circles--but it absolves AIM of any responsibility in her death, whatever facts ultimately come out. That's not to say that Banks actually acknowledges the notion that AIM even played a role in the tragedy.

In a last-minute addendum tacked on at the end of the chapter, Banks writes about "the trial against AIM security personnel Arlo Looking Cloud." "I am sorry to inform my readers that Kamook took the stand," he declares. But he fails to mention the more important fact that it appears that the Aquash murder has at last been solved--at the very least, partly solved. In fact, he doesn't even mention that Looking Cloud was being tried for Aquash's murder.

In sworn testimony, both Nichols and John Trudell, a former AIM chairman, have testified that in late February of 1976 Banks personally told them that a body discovered in the ravine was that of Aquash. This is curious, since the FBI did not positively identify the body until March 3.

Yet again, Banks is silent on the matter.

After Wounded Knee, Banks spent a decade as a fugitive on a conviction stemming from a courthouse riot in Custer, South Dakota. He faded from the headlines, but his life--like those of other AIM leaders--followed a Zelig-like trajectory. Banks went on to enjoy a modest Hollywood career--racking up acting credits in eight movies and twelve television shows. Means would live even more publicly, appearing in sixteen movies and nine television shows when he wasn't running for vice president (on a ticket with Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, no less). Trudell, meanwhile, became a poet and recording artist. In a strange footnote, Looking Cloud allegedly confessed his role in the Aquash killing to Trudell after meeting the former AIM leader at a Midnight Oil concert where Trudell was the opening act.

In recounting his numerous encounters with celebrity, Banks proves once again what a truly bizarre country we live in. At one point, when he's on the run from the law, Marlon Brando--with Harry Belafonte by his side!--gives Banks $10,000 in cash and the keys to his motor home. That act perhaps undermines Banks's rather melodramatic characterization of his predicament at that time: "Kamook and I had become fugitives with all hands raised against us." All hands, that is, except for those handing over 10 grand and an RV.

When the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnaps Patty Hearst, Banks is called upon to act as an intermediary. When Banks needs to raise bail money, the Rev. Jim Jones steps into the breach. Later, Jones--a man of far more apocalyptic Utopian fantasies--tries to talk Banks into joining the doomed commune in Guyana. It's an invitation Banks wisely refuses.

Banks doesn't devote much time to recent decades, which is fitting. AIM's glory years have long since passed, and its influence has waned. AIM's leaders were always better at staking out the moral high ground than maintaining it. In the end, the movement was racked by bitter infighting among its leaders and the government's calculated and overzealous prosecution of its members. And, over the long years, it has been haunted by the ghost of a woman AIM has long claimed as its martyr but who--by all appearances--was really its victim.

Until Banks and the other AIM eminences can own that, AIM's stirring, painful, and true history remains unwritten.

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