Review: American Indian Mafia

I’m a big fan of hearing all sides of a story. Having absorbed books and documentaries that take a pro-AIM (American Indian Movement) slant on the takeover and 71-day siege at Wounded Knee in 1973 I happily delved into the 600+ pages that make up FBI Special Agent In Charge Joseph Trimbach’s American Indian Mafia. Be forewarned, it’s a book filled with detail and argument.

Trimbach takes aim at media coverage that overlooked the fact that the village was taken over, looted, and burned by militant activists:

The reporters who covered Wounded Knee probably thought they were doing the right thing by granting credibility to people who advocated violence as a means to effect social change. But, by coloring a story the way Wounded Knee was, the media created a major problem for themselves: they soon became a distinctly unreliable source of information. The media missed covering the most important stories of the occupation: those of the people victimized by the takeover, and those rumored to have entered the village never to be heard from again. Granted, much of the hidden tumult probably occurred in April, after much of the press had lost interest. Still, it is fair to ask the question: did the media, in its rush to give AIM favorable coverage, overlook the violence perpetrated against ousted villagers and victimized infiltrators, some of which may have occurred right under their noses?

The book came at an interesting time. I was heavily involved covering the raid on the YFZ ranch, where more than 450 children were removed from their polygamous families amidst a horde of media and little bits of controlled information released by the government. Trimbach examines the legacy of Wounded Knee:

The deficit of knowledge may be partly due to not properly recording the event. At the time government archivists should have been paying attention to what was really happening in the village, Watergate and the ever-changing Directorship drew the focus away to political considerations. Because Headquarters was not engaged in the day-to-day conflict, and chose to stay that way, they were unaware of how precarious the situation was becoming. My recent attempts to revive interest in telling the true story of Wounded Knee have not met with great enthusiasm. Despite several attempts to convince Bureau personnel of the need to include Wounded Knee history in the official record, the FBI’s recently updated Minneapolis Office web site (as of this writing) still reflects inexplicable amnesia with not one mention of what was the most historically significant operation in Bureau history. What Headquarters officials (still) do not understand is that the topic should not be left to ideologues and extremists. What bothers me the most about this conspicuous failure is that the Bureau has ignored a history worth remembering, namely, that of hundreds of their own Special Agents and support personnel in rare service to their country.

Throughout Trimbach’s book, he points out where he feels the focus should be in the history of the event: squarely on the crimes committed. Like militants firing on Marshals and FBI Agents. Like the looting and burning of the trading post. Like the desecration of the village’s Catholic Church. And finally the brutal execution of two FBI agents. Trimbach argues that no amount of government corruption or police brutality should justify murder.

Bob Taubert recalls the grisly scene, hours later: “The Agents had been dead for some time. Rigor mortis had set in, and both bodies were covered with flies in the hot sun. When I saw the makeshift bandage, I immediately surmised that Ron had tried to save his partner. The totality of it hit me hard. I was sitting on the hill with my head in my hands, unable to comprehend why someone would do this. By now, the press had started to swarm. A female reporter came rushing up to me and said, ‘What happened, what happened here?’ I looked up at her and motioned toward the bodies. ‘I don’t know, lady. Why don’t you ask them?’”

More on the murders, as he dissects Matthiessen’s “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse”:

When Agents Jack Coler and Ron Williams drove onto Pine Ridge, they were acting under the knowledge of an existing arrest warrant for Jimmy Eagle. Furthermore, there is no prohibition against FBI Agents’ presence on federal reservations. In fact, their sworn duty is to investigate serious crimes in Indian Country.

To make this tale sound even more sinister, Matthiessen takes it a step further. With a conspiratorial ear turned to his AIM friends, we learn the dark secret that the Agents drove onto the reservation that fateful day in June of 1975— with their long guns safely locked in the trunks of their cars— acting as an advance team for an all-out assault on the practically defenseless AIM members who were minding their own business. And that, “…paramilitary forced had been surrounding the Oglala region all that morning…” and “…within a remarkably short time, reinforcements arrived that can only be called massive, when set against of band of untrained men and boys armed mostly with .30-30 deer rifles and .22s.”

What’s not explained in this fantastic story is why a large force of BIA police, FBI Agents, and law enforcement officers, supposedly standing by with massive firepower, arrived too late to save the Agents from being murdered. Or, for that matter, how “deer rifles and .22s” were able to hold off “massive reinforcements” at all. In another twist, depending on which one you prefer, the Agents unknowingly served as sacrificial lambs, used as bait to draw out the peace-loving Indians for one big shootout, a massacre the white law enforcement men had been wanting for a long time. (Matthiessen’s looniest ideas are often the most vicious.)

Trimbach pulls from recent events in the hunt for the killers of Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, including this chilling testimony from the 2004 trial of Arlo Looking Cloud:

McMahon: Tell the Court as best you remember exactly what he (Leonard Peltier) said.
Ka-Mook: Exactly what he said?
McMahon: Exactly what he said.
Ka-Mook (extremely upset): He said the motherf*cker was begging for his life, but I shot him anyway.

According to Trimbach, the historic version of the takeover of Wounded Knee by the American Indian Movement (AIM), has been dominated by pro-AIM voices. Reading his book has reminded me how important it is to listen to all sides of the story when forming an opinion.