A View from a Washichu
On April 27-28, four elderly men gathered at an academic conference in Sioux Falls, S.D.
They were Clyde Bellecourt, Dennis Banks, Russell Means and Joseph Trimbach.
They came to fight for their reputations in their twilight years for history — so far — is not judging them kindly.
The theme of the Dakota Conference held at the Center for Western Studies at Augustana College was the Wounded Knee Occupation, 40 years later. The Pine Ridge hamlet was taken over in 1973, so the title was a bit premature. As the true anniversary approaches, we will undoubtedly be hearing more from these men and their proxies.
Joseph Trimbach, now well into his 80s, was the FBI agent in charge when the American Indian Movement and its Oglala supporters took over the Pine Ridge village on Feb. 27, 1973. He is somewhat frail, but still sharp enough to answer questions about his agency’s role in the whole affair.
His son John Trimbach, the co-author of a book titled, American Indian Mafia, delivered a slickly produced PowerPoint presentation detailing all of AIM’s sins in the 1970s, along with a long gripe about the media, academia, investigative journalists, authors, museums, and anyone else who has dared to question the behavior of the law enforcement agency at Wounded Knee or during the dirty war and trials that followed. Joe Trimbach believes the agency did no wrong — if you can get him to talk about it at all. When asked a relatively simple question, “How many informants were there inside the village?” None, he responds. He claims to know nothing beyond the first two weeks.
The Trimbachs have put themselves forward as the experts on AIM. They will use the flimsiest of evidence to drag anyone’s name into the mud, but ask Joe an uncomfortable question about the FBI back then and it’s: Don’t know. Wasn’t there.
FBI misconduct, which has given his foes so much fodder over the past decades, is never mentioned.
Another odd thing about the Trimbach presentation: If you listen long enough, one gets the impression that the whole world is head over heels in love with the AIM of the 1970s. We have all been duped! The Trimbachs need to rip the wool that has been placed over our eyes. Frankly, I don’t see it. In fact, other than one left-wing professor, I don’t recall ever meeting any non-member, white, Native American, or otherwise, who had anything good to say about the organization in the 1970s.
Means and Bellecourt were present during all of the conference. Banks came at the tail end. The two Minnesota-based AIM co-founders have at times expressed a great deal of animosity toward Means over the years — to put it mildly. Means in 1999 publicly accused Clyde and his late brother Vernon of ordering Anna Mae Aquash’s death, and Banks of knowing about it afterwards. But they let bygones be bygones during the conference. They hugged, smiled and laughed at each other’s jokes. All three at various times delivered about the same message: nobody ever talks about the good things the organization accomplished. Nobody ever mentions some of the major changes in law, policy and attitudes that came after the occupation.
And these are valid points.
But there was so much they didn’t talk about. For example, if AIM member Leonard Peltier, now serving life sentences for the murder of two FBI agents, thinks his former leaders are out there championing his cause. Forget it. Means made an hour-and-20-minute speech and didn’t evoke his name once. An audience member, who was apparently sympathetic to Peltier’s plight, got up during the Q&A and pointed this out.
“What about Leonard Peltier?” was Means’ somewhat defensive response.
Once he realized the audience member was not hostile, he softened up a bit.
“Do you think he is wrongly imprisoned?” the audience member asked. It was a “yes” or “no” question. But Means deftly answered without saying either way.
As for Anna Mae Aquash, the AIM member murdered execution-style by at least two of the organization’s rank-and-file members, the leadership was mum on her. They were so literally tight lipped every time her name was brought up, I wonder if legal council has advised them to never utter her name.
And then there is Perry Ray Robinson Jr., the black civil rights activist who went into the occupied village, then disappeared shortly thereafter under mysterious circumstances. A question from myself directed at Banks, the leader of the camp at the time of his arrival, was answered with a firm denial that he had ever met the man.
Means, who would have no first-hand knowledge of Robinson’s fate, took it upon himself to respond with a very loud, angry rant against “people like you” who insist on asking AIM leaders gotcha questions about its past. He then insinuated that if he were a younger, healthier man, he would do a lot more to me than shout.
As one acquaintance emailed me hours later, “I don’t think the AIM leaders did a very good job of convincing the luncheon audience that they aren’t thugs.”
The words “lies” and “liars” were tossed between the two sides both days. Detached, cool-headed discussions about the meaning of Wounded Knee were few and far between, and panels became more about scoring points between the two sides than an academic examination of the occupation.
But a third voice did emerge. The younger generation asked some of these men if it were possible to have some kind of reconciliation. Karin Eagle, Native Sun News reporter, was among them. Another young Native American man, whose name I unfortunately did not catch, asked the same. Can there be some kind of truth commission, where there would be some immunity and these actors could come clean? Can there be some way to heal all these wounds that have festered for decades?
This idea seemed to get little purchase.
Then, there were also the victims of AIM. Denise Maloney, the daughter of Aquash, asked for AIM leaders to come clean. Adrienne Fritz, who was a 12-year-old resident in Wounded Knee, and whose early life was destroyed by the takeover, emerged as a leading voice. She wants to heal the wounds, but she also wants an apology. An AIM member molested her during the occupation, she alleges, and her beloved pony was stolen. She never really got the apology she was looking for.
Means, responding to her plea, said he was “sorry for your trauma, but…” But the white traders were all corrupt and stole from Indians. They deserved it, he went on to say.
Means is old enough to know that an apology followed by the word “but” is no apology at all.
Will Pine Ridge, AIM, and AIM’s foes ever be able to move beyond these left-wing and right-wing “competing narratives?” Not as long as Banks, Bellecourt, Means and Trimbach remain on this mortal coil, I am afraid. Not that I am hoping for their demise. Far from it. The world is a much more interesting place with them in it.
This is only my first, quick impression of this historic conference. I intend to produce a piece of long-form journalism that will be a thorough account of what took place in Sioux Falls. I promise readers that it will be balanced, and all parties will have their points of view represented fairly. I have never claimed to be an objective reporter, but I hope that I have been even-handed.
I have a working title for the work, and I think it is appropriate, it will be called, “Wounded Knee: Still Bleeding.”
Stew Magnuson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder: And Other True Stories from the Nebraska-Pine Ridge Border Towns (Plains Histories)