With the editorial assistance of Richard Erdoes, Dennis Banks has finally written his side of the story of AIM. The full title is Ojibwa Warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American Indian Movement, and it is very much an American Indian autobiography. As one would expect from a prestigious press with intellectual integrity like the University of Oklahoma, Ojibwa Warrior is the best of its kind, a biographical look at contemporary American Indian politics. It is not "best" in that it is comprehensive or brilliantly analytical, but in its faithfulness to traditional Indian exposition. It tells the story from a fundamentally Indian point of view, in terms of people and families and values, not movements and individuals and ideas.
Dennis Banks was the product of a "normal" Indian life in the twentieth century. Born at Leech Lake, Minnesota, in 1937, he is Chippewa to Occidental Americans, Ojibway to Occidental Canadians, and Anishinabe to his family.
About Richard Erdoes
It is nearly impossible to be a friend of the Indian and not be controversial. No doubt there are Indian people and, of course, white intellectuals who regard Erdoes as an opportunist, exploiter, and "popularizer" (that last "insult" used to be thrown at Carl Sagan and Joseph Campbell). But I don't know if anyone has had a more distinguished career as scribe to the Indian people. In his 40-year career, Erdoes has written dozens of books on his adopted West, most of them about Indians. The most well-known would be Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions and Lakota Woman.
Their heads were shaved, their clothes replaced with uniforms, and they were segregated male and female, denied even their own siblings. And they were taught, with beatings, insults, and solitary confinement, to be white. Charles A. Eastman, writing a hundred years earlier, would describe his time at the same school as "like I was dead." For a taste of the system, read Away from Home, an anthology of memories of boarding school experience, Shaping Survival, four essays by American Indian women who weathered the boarding school system and went on to become teachers themselves. For a general history, read David Adams' Education for Extinction; for a sense of how universal the experience was, thumb through any American Indian autobiography published in the first half of the 20th Century.
To "be white" is to wear "civilized" clothes. It is, as Senator Henry Dawes (sponsor of a notorious attempt to "fix" the Indians) put it, "to cultivate the ground, live in houses, ride in Studebaker wagons, send children to school, drink whiskey, and own property." It is, he added, "to learn selfishness." (And the Dawes Act, his cynical colleague Henry Teller observed approvingly, would get the Indians off that good Indian land.) To be white. To be white is to speak English. This, the national language, was defended, its use enforced, with ridicule and torture.
Forbidden his native language, cut off from his traditional grandparents who spoke it, Banks lost his ability to speak Anishinabe for more than a decade. He spent his school career running away. When not running or in solitary confinement, he learned a few manual skills, and as soon as he could, he enlisted in the Air Force. A tour in Japan during the Occupation helped him grasp that his "difference" was not unique, that there were whole worlds of cultured and civilized people who were not pink, loud, florid, and avaricious. He married a Japanese woman. When his tour was up, he was refused permission to bring his wife home with him. He went AWOL to live with her. After fugitive times, he returned to the U.S., a felon for loving an Asian, without her. She disappeared into the chaos of the transition from old to new Japan.
Banks conceived AIM while in prison for stealing groceries. Modelled explicitly on the radical Black Panthers, the organization he founded with Vernon Bellecourt and George Mitchell was to be a neighborhood watch program to protect American Indian citizens of Minneapolis from racist police activity. From this seed would grow one of the most successful pan-Indian movements of the century. Banks emphasizes the spiritual roots of the movement, its connection to Lakota ceremonialism, as represented by Lame Deer, Crow Dog, and other elders of that tribe. Banks and Means both pierced for Lakota Sun Dances, and many years later, as a teacher at Deganawidah-Quetzalcoatl University in Davis, California, Banks introduced the Plains Indian Sweat Lodge to his students.
Ojibwa Warrior is a bit of a disappointment in that it offers no new revelations about the siege at Wounded Knee or the killings at the Jumping Bull ranch. It does not present a new story to explain the deaths of FBI agents that led to the incarceration of Leonard Peltier. And it does nothing to settle the question left after the controversial fragmentation of AIM.
The Albatross: Who Killed
Anna Mae Aquash was born Pictou in Canada, and she came to the U.S. as a committed First nations activist. When she joined AIM she quickly ascended to a leadership role. Then she was murdered and she became, in her tragic death, the albatross of AIM–not an unpleasant burden to be ignored and discarded, but a crippling talisman like Coleridge's original, an emblem of failed will, pointless destruction, and dishonor. As I write, a booze-addled AIM flunkie has sort of confessed to having helped kill her at the behest of AIM leadership, and he has implicated a Canadian Indian man. People of character, like John Trudell, are offering corroborations that are circumstantial but troubling, and people of no character, like FBI and BIA officials, are serving up the usual farrago of lies. We'll never know the truth.
AIM fractured in two during the years after the Jumping Bull firefight that killed an Indian and two FBI agents. If you read the websites that claim to be "official" and "real" AIM sites, you quickly descend into squabbles over whether this one or that is "really Indian," who is/was a snitch, who betrayed the movement, who used/is using the Indian people for his personal gain.
From one faction, Vernon Bellecourt denounces Russell Means for embracing the Contras and other right-wing causes, and for, strangely enough, associating AIM with the PLO and Kaddafi. The Means camp spreads faith-promoting rumors of criminal activities, including drug-dealing, about the Bellecourt brothers. During Means' controversial troubles with the Navajo tribal court, the Minneapolis-based shard of AIM (Bellecourts and Banks) repudiated him; meanwhile, Means remains at the center of Ward Churchill's radical chic AIMColorado, and he seems totally comfortable with Churchill's particular flavor of "honorary Indian."
How bad is the dissension? Dennis Banks adds a poignant footnote to the end of Ojibwa Warrior that identifies his wife of decades, Denise Nichols ("Kamook"), as an FBI informant, perhaps because Kamook Banks is closely allied with the prosecution of Arlo Looking Cloud and John Graham for the murder of Anna Mae Aquash. "Closely," as in now married to the BIA policeman Robert Ecoffey, the former Dick Wilson thug who is leading the fight to extradite Graham from his native Canada. "Leading," as in posturing to the tune of the FBI, while the Federal agency marshals bad logic and false and misleading information that covers the whole "discovery" with the fetid stink of a frameup. (There is, for example, the U.S. government's assertion in the Canadian courts that certain witnesses are eager to testify once Graham is in the hands of American "justice," even though those witnesses are, one learns with a few questions, dead. No doubt they voted for Bush, too. A shame to waste them.)
AIM (Banks and the Bellecourts) says John Graham is being railroaded, just like Leonard Peltier was. Too much evidence, they say, points to Durham and the FBI as Anna Mae's killers. The Leonard Peltier Defense Committee (Means, Ward Churchill, and Rob Robideau) propagate the idea that "AIM Leaders" had Anna Mae killed; the context of their assertion makes it clear that they mean Banks, the only one "deeply involved" with her. But they deny that Peltier was involved, and politely ignore the fact that Looking Cloud's testimony implicates the Means boys more than it does Dennis Banks.
Why their emphasis on Peltier? Well, one of the more logic-defying claims in the extradition testimony is that Peltier himself "ordered" the killing, which is as likely as hearing the truth from a government "crime fighter." Peltier was not a significant part of the AIM power structure, and he was in Canada when Anna Mae died. But Peltier's innocent martyrdom is the LPDF's political meal ticket, recall, so that little bit of the Graham story needs to be cut off quickly. Can't have him guilty. And, by the way, the same witness who heard him "order the execution of ANna Mae" also turns out to have heard him "brag about killing the FBI agents"! How convenient! Meanwhile, the LPDF defends Peltier's innocence, but he's not much use to them free either. Hence their willingness to stage a bit of theatre regarding the "real killer" ("Mr. X") that ended up hurting Peltier's parole status and undermining the credibility of Peter Matthiessen and Robert Redford. Oh darn.
The Pictou family–the last victims in this mess, more eager for blood atonement than concerned with justice–say Banks and the Bellecourts are afraid the Graham's trial will "bring out the truth," which is to say, will implicate them. But this seems an odd claim, given that the Means faction also wants Graham "brought to justice," and the Pictous believe that testimony that the execution of Anna Mae was an operation masterminded and staged from the home of Russell Means' brother Bill, implicating Means much more directly than Banks. Why would Banks worry and not Means? And Banks doesn't seem worried, if you follow his postings at the AIM site of his faction and other public statements. Neither, in fact, does Means. A puzzle.
As far back as Tecumseh, the tragedy of the American Indian peoples has been driven by their inability to form up behind a universal leader and common cause. This is not for want of trying, but because the task is simply too complex and daunting. What Occidental historians call "Indians" is the diverse population of a continent (two, technically). Thy are people as various in their lifestyles and values as the Japanese, the French, the Finns, and the Israelis, ancestors of a wealth of different and even conflicting technologies, literacies, and polities. In other words, it is no surprise, however tragic, that they cannot find their common ground, beset as they are. Where, other than the fact of oppression, would it be?
So who knows if Dennis Banks is the wise patriarch or unindicted monster his admirers and detractors argue over? Certainly no indisputable facts about his life compromise his integrity. Facts comparable, say, to Russell Means announcing that Disney Studio's Pocahontas and Michael Mann's Last of the Mohicans, in which he had roles, are "the greatest films ever made about Indians." Or Means' specious defense of Ward Churchill's spurious claim of Indian blood: "Indians are the only human beings who have to show pedigree papers, like dogs." Never mind that Means and Churchill have spent decades attacking "non-Indians" on the grounds of their bad "pedigree papers."
Ojibwa Warrior is not a coup speech or an apologia or a confession. It steers a middle course which is not, merely because it is balanced, necessarily more likely to be the truth. The truth, the history, is gone, buried in propaganda and self-serving deceit and gossip. In the case of AIM, history will always be "the accepted fiction," and what we accept will have less to do with facts than with our preoccupations and values. The book contains no confessions or revelations. But as an Indian life, a distinguished contemporary Indian life, it is well worth reading. The University of Oklahoma has done Indian letters another great service.
Buy Ojibwa Warrior at Amazon.com.
Dennis Banks wrote an earlier autobiography, Sacred Soul, published in Japan and not readily available in the United States, even used.
I can't do more than touch on the other literature you might be interested in here. For starters, if you haven't read it, get Peter Matthiessen's definitive report on the siege at Wounded Knee, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, which is so accurate and compelling that the FBI and South Dakota's political disgrace, William Janklow, forced the publisher to withdraw the first edition. (Janklow finally got what he deserved, or a tiny taste of it, when he was convicted of the kind of crime South Dakota takes seriously: killing a white man.)
Read Kenneth Stern's Loud Hawk: The United States Versus the American Indian Movement to see how the government persecution of AIM continues, and Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior's Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee for a historical rather than personal account of AIM, find a copy of Michael Apted and Robert Redford's documentary, Incident at Ogalala, and Robert Burnette's The Road to Wounded Knee.
For other personal perspectives, read Leonard Peltier's memoir, Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sun Dance, or Richard Erdoes' other collaborations: Mary Brave Bird's Lakota Woman (published under her married name Crow Dog), which won the American Book Award, the less successful sequel Ohitika Woman, and the autobiography of AIM's spiritual leader, Mary's husband Leonard Crow Dog (Crow Dog: Four Generations of Sioux Medicine Men).
The "other leader" of AIM, Russell Means, has also written his autobiography, Where White Men Fear to Tread, a vastly different enterprise than Ojibwa Warrior. Mean's autobiography is what I think of as "liberal 'boogah boogah!' lit," which capitalizes on the masochism of white intellectuals by posturing menacingly over the martini glass and uttering fierce slogans. Means was often identified as the leader of AIM because he had the charisma and hunger for self-promotion that Banks, the quiet man doing the real work, was spared. Non-Indian historical accounts will often, erroneously, identify Means as "in charge" of this or that, on the same principle that 19C whites assumed certain men were "chiefs." Means' biography, like his political career, is overwrought and self-congratulatory–a coup speech, if you like–and therefore Indian but of a different kind than Banks' story.
Tellingly, AIM itself fractured after Wounded Knee into two factions: the Means faction with its political bluster, chic opportunism, and dubious connections to political movements outside the U.S., and the Banks faction working quietly for better schools, preservation of Indian values, and restoration of Indian rights. Both camps accuse the other of selling out the movement, as well as criminal activity and even of being FBI informants. The Means camp is best exemplified, unfortunately, by its self-appointed spokesman and black-beret poster child, honorary Indian, undercover truck driver, and part-time plagiarist Ward Churchill (whose camo and semi-automatic picture is referred to by Indian wags as "Patty Hearst Lite"). The Means story is played out on TV. To hear the Banks story, you'll have to go to the rez, where the Indians are.