Dennis Banks, the leader of the American Indian Movement with a flair for inspirational oratory and an instinct for deserved publicity, died Sunday. He will be best remembered, along with Russell Means, for leading a makeshift militia of Indians and sympathizers in the takeover of Wounded Knee in 1973. AIM held the South Dakota hamlet for 71 days against a ridiculously excessive force of FBI agents, U.S. Marshals, Bureau of Indian Affairs officers, vigilante goons empowered by a tribal council that AIM aptly called White Man’s Indians, and one or more branches of the U.S. military (never mind that federal law prohibited the military from being deployed domestically).
Wounded Knee was a powerful symbol not only as the site of the 1890 massacre of up to 300 defenseless Indians by savages of the 7th Cavalry but also, in modern times, as the home of a monopoly trading post whose white owners extorted local Indians with outrageous prices for basic goods and usurious lines of credit. AIM’s occupation of Wounded Knee, like many acts led by Banks and Means, was bold, reckless, heroic.
There have been many worthy requiems for Banks this week (including, surprisingly, an almost balanced effort from The New York Times, which has often slighted AIM), but you’ll be hard pressed to find a word in any of them about the near certainty that Banks was an accessory to the murders of two AIM activists—and maybe worse. In the story of those murders, and in Banks’s complicity, lies the story of how the FBI tried to provoke Indian leaders into destroying their own movement and how those leaders did exactly that.
Readers of a certain age and outlook will recall that the FBI of that era saw in nearly every challenge to the established order a dangerous subversion that had to be crushed. J. Edgar Hoover even instructed his agents to sabotage the entirely peaceful leaders of the black civil rights movement. In the most notorious instance, they tried to blackmail Martin Luther King Jr. into committing suicide. When more-militant groups like the Black Panthers arose, the FBI took its sabotage further and worked through agents provocateur to incite the Panthers and other militants into killing one another. According to the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the Bureau’s efforts met with success when a fight erupted in 1969 between Panthers and members of the United Slaves that left two people in dead.
AIM was among the groups the FBI infiltrated and provoked. One AIM chapter in Southern California had more informers than activists, and even Banks’s own bodyguard, a detestable specimen named Doug Durham, turned out to be an informer. The public announcement of his betrayal was undoubtedly meant to stoke paranoia within AIM, and thereafter nearly every prominent Indian activist was suspected at one time or another by other activists of being a snitch.
In 1975 suspicion fell heavily and wrongly on Anna Mae Aquash, an activist and onetime lover of the womanizing Dennis Banks. Aquash had made enemies in AIM by refusing to accept the subordinate role to which the group usually relegated women. As suspicions about her multiplied, someone in AIM’s leadership ordered her kidnapped and, eventually, murdered. In January of 1976 a pair of AIM foot soldiers bound and drove her to the badlands just off South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, marched her to a cliff, and put a bullet in the back of her head. AIM was already falling apart after the infamous shootout with the FBI months earlier at the Jumping Bull Ranch (a shootout that became the subject of Peter Matthiessen’s magisterial In the Spirit of Crazy Horse and the documentary Incident at Oglala). After Aquash’s body toppled over the cliff, AIM’s disintegration accelerated rapidly. A year or two later there was nothing left. The FBI must have been tickled black.
For years rumors swirled that Banks, Means, or possibly both had ordered the hit, or were at least complicit in the deed, partly because several of their deputies had a role in the plans or knew about them and did nothing to stop them, and few of these people ever made a big move without the blessing of leaders above them. The rumors gained substance in 2004 when activist John Trudell reluctantly testified at the trial of one of Aquash’s killers that after Aquash’s body had been found but before it had been identified, Banks told him, “You know that body they found? That is Annie Mae.” Trudell was about as honest a man as existed in AIM, and there is little reason to doubt his account. Banks, a less reliable authority, countered in his autobiography that it had happened the other way around: Trudell had told him the body was Aquash’s.
If we assume for the moment that Banks merely learned about Aquash’s killing after the fact, little shame attaches to him for not going to authorities with what he knew. (If he had knowledge beforehand of the order to kill her, which is much more likely, shame covers him utterly.) A hostile U.S. Attorney’s office, which had already pursued AIM with unremitting malice and trumped-up charges, either would have used his revelations to destroy the movement or would have done nothing, preferring to let the murder sow further discord within AIM.
Certainly the FBI preferred inaction and discord, as I confirmed decades later through a request under the Freedom of Information Act for my book The Unquiet Grave. Documents the Bureau released show that in the days Aquash was being held in South Dakota, the FBI was given more than one tip by one or more of its informers that she had been kidnapped by AIM, yet did nothing. A few days later she was dead. There is no evidence that the Bureau’s agents went back to the informers afterward to work the case. And, of course, they wouldn’t have. Why solve a crime they had intentionally brought about? Even many years later, when the minions who killed Aquash were finally tried and convicted, not a mention was made of the blood dripping from the FBI’s fists.
But while Banks may not have been dishonorable for staying silent at the time, he became more and more contemptible as the decades passed and he refused to break his silence. Aquash’s daughters, children when she was killed, spent desperate years looking for answers about their mother’s death. Banks’s silence was a particular cruelty to them. He was right to fear, even decades later, being charged as an accessory after the fact, for which there is no statute of limitations. But he could have fibbed about when and how he learned the facts of Aquash’s murder—saying, for example, that the information had come to him second- or third-hand many years later—and told Aquash’s daughters what he knew. But he lacked the courage to give a grieving family even a measure of peace.
Astonishingly enough, theirs was not the only family Banks abused in just this way. During the siege of Wounded Knee, a black activist named Ray Robinson had come to the village to stand with the militants and had immediately and wrongly fallen under suspicion of being an informer. AIM members seized him, interrogated him, and shot and killed him. Whether the shot was intentional or an accidental misfire of a weapon pointed at him remains a mystery, but credible witnesses say that several leaders, including Banks and Means, conspired about what to do with Robinson’s body. By one account, it was Banks himself who ordered Robinson buried in the hills around Wounded Knee. Like Aquash’s daughters, Robinson’s widow, Cheryl Buswell-Robinson, tried for decades to learn how her husband died. A civil rights activist herself, she had no interest in undermining AIM or even having the killers prosecuted. She just wanted answers.
At one point in her searches, an AIM member told her it had been Banks who summoned Robinson to his interrogation, but when she tried to reach Banks to discuss the charge, he refused to talk to her. In 2004, as these details came to light, I tried to ask Banks about Robinson’s death and he refused to talk to me too. Other reporters got no more from him. Once again, his cowardice outstripped his compassion.
None of this is to say that Banks’s wrongs outweigh those of the FBI. Absent the FBI’s work pitting activist against activist, no activists would have been killed. But Banks and company were entirely to blame for succumbing to the FBI’s provocation. They didn’t have to. The black civil rights leaders who marched with King didn’t, which is one reason why their movement didn’t fall apart while AIM’s did. In the end, the stupidity and brutality of men such as Banks hurt not only their own legacies but the lot of all Indians, who live to this day in an endless economic depression and who endure a racism that surpasses even that which black Americans daily endure. A better Banks, a better Means might have given Indians a better life.