My wonderful bride of forty-nine years reads the newspaper from cover to cover (clipping coupons as she goes), cutting out articles she knows I may have an interest in, and leaving them on the kitchen table so I can read them while having breakfast before leaving for work in the morning.
One recent notice she immediately flagged, “Native American Activist to visit area next week.” The short article announced that Dennis Banks, co-founder of the American Indian Movement would be leading a 3,600 mile walk across America from La Jolla, California to Washington, D.C. in 2016. The emphasis is to “find solutions to drug addiction, suicide and other forms of trauma,” and that “Every native family is affected by these issues. The goal of this walk is to rescue our people.”
The public was invited to meet him at a community center in Covington, Kentucky across the river from Cincinnati, from 6 to 8pm on Wednesday, September 23rd.
What an opportunity, I thought, and immediately started the mental preparation for what I believed would be another venture into enemy territory. I had to give careful consideration about what, if anything to say, and even what to wear.
The last time I was in “Peltier territory” was attending “An afternoon in Solidarity with Leonard Peltier,” hosted by the most bizarre collection of America-haters you can imagine, The Jericho Movement, on the lower east side of Manhattan. It was to be a discussion with Peltier’s then attorney, Barry Bachrach, and one other (I have personally despised since day-one), Bob Robideau (may he rest-in-peace…Not). I really wanted to challenge Mr. Bachrach on some facts but regretfully he didn’t make it and my brother and I had to endure Robideau. I had decided I would just listen and take notes for an update to the NPPA website. However, at one point after listening to Robideau’s line of B.S., and without thinking and with an involuntary and uncontrollable reflex, my hand shot up and I had to ask a question. By the time I got to the second question we were unceremoniously asked to leave. Anyone interested in what the Jericho Movement and their membership is all about, please do so. If they hate “AmeriKa” so much, try speaking up as they do, exercising their Constitutional rights in the process, in some other parts of the world. I’d be the first to contribute to the boat ride to take them all out of here. But the hypocrites won’t go; they know better.
I needed to dress down for the occasion deciding on jeans and considered wearing a Free Leonard Peltier T-shirt that my brother gave me as a joke. I felt that was too much and didn’t want to provoke a heated discussion, or worse. After a lot of thought I settled on one of my favorites, “The original Founding Fathers” with the Presidents on Mt. Rushmore overshadowed by renowned Indian Chiefs. (Fn: 2) I felt that would be appropriate to send a message that I was aware and sympathetic to Native rights, culture and history, without overstating it. I took Peltier’s book Prison Writings and thought that having Dennis Banks’ autograph would be an interesting keepsake and NPPA blog discussion point.
Leaving the office I joked with a few co-workers that even after fourteen years retired, no matter how I tried to dress-down, I still pretty much smelled like a Fed. They agreed. Heck, even my vanity license plate would be a dead giveaway.
Admittedly, the motivations to go were not altruistic. After all, AIM member Leonard Peltier cold-bloodedly murdered two of my fellow agents, neither of whom I had the privilege of knowing. However, I did want to attend with an open and receptive mind.
Arriving early I parked several blocks away and gave more consideration to how I would handle things and what to expect if the situation got ugly. Taking Peltier’s book with me now became a concern and even not wearing an unbuttoned black shirt over the Rushmore T-shirt. I wasn’t being paranoid, just only overly cautious knowing that I would stick out like a sore thumb and didn’t want to be in a situation that could go south quickly. I’ve had over fifteen years dealing with the likes of some wildly sycophantic Peltierites and know many of their twisted personalities. Ultimately, I left the book and shirt behind and took a few side streets and alleyways to the community center.
Walking into the room I was instantly struck by three things that caught my eye all at once; a sign-in sheet, Dennis Banks sitting at a table (with a Kenny Rogers beard, but unmistakable with this signature black bola adorned with white and colored beading), and to my shock, across from him, none other than Ward Churchill.
I sat at the same table, offered a greeting and handshake to Dennis Banks but couldn’t take my eyes off the disgraced Churchill. Churchill, the pariah of academia, the loudmouth Indian wannabe (the absolute worst kind) that branded Americans as “little Eichmann’s,” blaming us for 9/11 and was totally unapologetic about his personal attacks on this country. (Fn: 3). After a few minutes I settled down and realized that it just couldn’t be him. (Two hours later, at the end of the gathering, I tapped this fellow on the shoulder, smiled, and asked how many times he’s been told he resembles Ward Churchill. “A bunch” he replied. Poor guy.)
As more arrived, the total reached about forty and Dennis suggested moving the tables out of the way and forming a circle. The concept of a circle being significant to Native American culture, religious practices and thought. And that’s what we did, forming a circle of chairs with Dennis at the apex.
Next to Dennis was a large and distinguished quintessential Native American, maybe in his mid-40s, dark skinned and prominent features with traditional long hair. As we were finishing the circle he caught my eye and gave me a knowing nod and a smile that I was certain was an acknowledgement and acceptance of my Founding Father’s T-shirt. I smiled back in appreciation. (Good choice, I thought.)
The organizers/moderators, Paul and a physician, Dr. Jeremy (didn’t catch his last name) were gracious hosts and during the discussion helped to share information and keep the flow of the discussions and conversations on track, which at one point became a challenge.
Paul introduced Dennis and suggested he speak about his visit and mission. Dennis offered that they begin by going around the room and having everyone in the circle introduce themselves. (Great! I recalled that’s just how it started back on the lower East Side with the Jericho Movement. It began with a global question to the audience, “Is anyone here a police officer or in law enforcement.” Since being retired I obviously wasn’t, but their suspicions were already raised while two strangers sat in their midst. Then, when asked, I simply stated I was doing research for a book; my brother said likewise).
The introductions began as everyone stated their full name, some giving more background than others, and when it got to me I said, “My name is Ed, I live in Cincinnati, my great-grandfather was a full-blood. I have been to Pine Ridge and understand the devastation on the Reservation and am interested in learning more about Dennis’ walk across America.” Which was all true. (Another hurdle passed).
Of course, I knew about Dennis Banks and Russell Means and AIM but within the several hundred pages of Editorial Essays and several years of Blogs on the No Parole Peltier website I’ve mentioned AIM but a few times, and then only in passing. AIM, although a factor, was irrelevant to the events of June 26, 1975 at Jumping Bull on Pine Ridge and the brutal murder of FBI Agents Jack Coler and Ron Williams. That was a singularly criminal act by Peltier and the others. I am not alone in recognizing it as such, and so have the courts. However, in preparation, I did visit YouTube and watched every Banks’ video. Some had surprisingly low viewer counts. I had heard the same Peltier rhetoric more times than I’d like to remember and Banks rattled on in many videos and interviews providing a rehash of the misinformation that’s been the bedrock of the Peltier myth and folklore for decades. There was nothing new or unexpected in the public statements Banks’ offered about Peltier.
Sitting there that evening I faced a real challenge. I needed to set aside all my personal feelings about Banks’ and Means and the devastation wrought by AIM in the 1970s and the connection that all those who participated in first attacking and severely wounding the agents and then the brutal murders, were all AIM members. I wanted not to go there but focus on the message Banks was bringing to this group. I was prepared, of course, to answer any of those Peltier questions but would be unable to stay focused unless I was able to leave my preconceived notions at the door. I had to keep fighting the urge and concentrate on the evening’s topic.
Dennis spoke for about a half-hour mentioning he had already made several walks across America and planned three more for 2016, 17 and 18. I was both surprised and impressed. Not an especially big man, but somewhat overweight and at 78 I felt that was an admirable undertaking. He would be walking with college students and supporters, staying at various supporters’ homes and participating in sweat lodges as he spread his message making his way to Washington, D.C.
He emphasized the scourge of addiction, beginning with marijuana, crack, meth and especially a growing heroin epidemic afflicting the young. This was one area I would have been prompted to offer a comment that recently two billion tax dollars had been earmarked for the support of Middle Eastern, especially Syrian, refugees. Certainly sympathetic to their plight, but I would rather see that money spent right here, starting with places like Pine Ridge and the inner cities of Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. Also, since 9/11 it’s no secret that precious government resources at all levels have been directed toward the terrorist threat at the expense of what once was the, War On Drugs.
Dennis mentioned other marches he had led, and for the only time that evening the name was mentioned; a “Peltier” march. That was it regarding Peltier and only one story that touched on AIM that surprisingly also lauded a former President.
He mentioned the take-over of the village of Wounded Knee in 1973. They (the government) wanted their land back, he said, but it was our land, so how could they take it back. Knowing the details of what’s been referred to as Wounded Knee II, and the utter destruction of the village, ancient artifacts, the horrible treatment of people who had been providing goods and services to the poor community for decades, not to mention the murder of civil rights worker Perry Robinson, and the strong belief of other bodies buried as a result of the AIM thugs; add in the AIM ordered murder of one of their own, Anna Mae Aquash, and it was hard not to begin to dismiss Banks on these issues.
Forty-five years ago a younger, stronger, Dennis Banks was a 70’s radical, who, along with co-founder, Russell Means, left a wake of destruction in their path when the stated goal of AIM was allegedly the betterment of their people and an awakening of the rest of America to Native rights and issues. Mostly it had the opposite effect. Means, in that famous photo of himself wrapped in the American flag was but an oxymoron. Means was a user of his native fame for his own enrichment. A better photo would have him wrapped in a cloak of hundred-dollar bills. In retrospect, Banks, it now seemed, AIM braggadocio aside, appeared to be the more humble of the two.
Banks said Richard Nixon was the best President ever because he’s the only one who gave land back to the Indians and that during WKII, the Justice Department went to Nixon and wanted to cover the village with “gasoline and light it and everyone there on fire.” (I suspected Banks was referring to napalming the village.) But, according to Banks, Nixon said, absolutely not. I felt the story was a total fabrication, but Banks did move on to other issues.
His talk was rambling and disjointed at times and when talking about the physical manifestations of drug addiction, not all that accurate, but speaking of that and the Native significance of respect for human life and adoration of Mother Earth and reverence to follow the Creator, his overall message was sincere and positive. And although segued into other topics, he did return to the central purpose of his visit and walk across America.
I was a little surprised to hear him say that this area (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky) was one of the worst drug infested areas in the country. No one in the gathering objected, (a few grunted in agreement), but I found it considerably exaggerated seeing the utter turmoil of gang and drug violence in some of the major cities. After all, I lived here for nearly thirty years and although there are problems, the news reports are minor by comparison to places like Chicago and Baltimore, to name just a couple.
As Dennis spoke and responded to questions he exhibited a certain warmth and civility, not unlike a kindly grandfather, also with a sharp wit and noticeable sense of humor.
Those gathered that evening were an—eclectic—group. No captains of industry or highly successful individuals living the American dream, just everyday people, mostly, it appeared from some of their comments, struggling with life and even survival. One older couple (actually my age) told of three addicted adult children struggling and failing with rehabilitation. There was an anthropology student, whom Dennis singled out to make a point that those explorations, those bones, were the sacred remains of his ancestors and should remain untouched. A social worker told of the some forty deaths she experienced from the ravages of drug addiction and the lack of both courage of political leadership and a paucity of funding to help those most in need. Some spoke, with specifics, about the lack of rehabilitation options in northern Kentucky due in large part to a single source of hospital and medical support while just a few yards across the Ohio River there were multiple hospitals competing with one another offering more options to their residents.
One fellow, antsy in his chair, forced his opportunity to speak, jumped up and in the middle of the circle railed on, waving, gesturing as animated as anyone could imagine, spouting a philosophy that clearly made sense to him while repeatedly seeking acknowledgement and approval from Dennis. He went on for what felt like an interminable amount of time; maybe ten minutes that felt like an hour. His philosophic ranting, at least to me, made absolutely no sense and gave the impression, that since this was a gathering about drug abuse and its effects, seemed pretty much wired and probably would have continued for the rest of the evening if allowed. Gratefully, Dr. Jeremy, politely, as the apparent gentleman he was, offered that perhaps others had questions they wanted to ask Dennis. The speaker complied. I silently suspected that Paul and Dr. Jeremy were familiar with this individual.
Dennis related that he was raised on a Reservation and had to endure the trauma of Indian boarding schools designed to strip away his tribal identity. The mantra of those times was to kill the Indian and save the man. Dennis mentioned the broken treaties and the denigration of his culture and I believe, at one point, used the word, genocide. Was it really genocide? Perhaps not. According to noted historian, Stephen Ambrose, the consistent idea was to civilize the Indians, incorporate them into the community, to make them part of the melting pot. That it did not work, that it was foolish, conceited, even criminal, may be true, but that does not turn, (a then), well-meant program into genocide.
However, retrospection has its own clarity and that’s perhaps an uncomplicated explanation from a 21st Century white man, even with Indian blood. The fact remains, I never had to live that experience, or with its consequences.
At the end Dennis offered that everyone stand so he could go around the circle and give each person a hug. A meaningful gesture I thought, being at once gracious and sincere. I had already regretted not bringing Peltier’s book because it would have been very easy to ask Dennis for an autograph. As he approached, we hugged. I offered a handshake, touched him on the shoulder and wished him success on his journey. He graciously accepted. I asked if he would mind a photo, and we posed together for a selfie.*
* * *
Having tried earnestly to set aside my feelings and bias against the murderous coward Leonard Peltier and the failure of AIM to contribute anything meaningful to the betterment of Native America, I saw Dennis Banks in a different light as a genuinely concerned native elder in his own way searching for solutions for the betterment of mankind in general and particularly his people. I had to show him the respect he deserved for that.
I walked away with the sense that I would benefit from having the opportunity to sit down with him, one-on-one, maybe over a beer, or more appropriately at a sweat lodge, share a peace pipe or the aromas of burning tobacco, and listen to his experiences, but also tell him of the things that Peltier has admitted over the years.
No, I don’t believe I could convince him of Peltier’s guilt but feel confident I could make him want to ask hard questions about what really happened that day at Jumping Bull and how Peltier has denigrated a proud Native American culture that, certainly, Dennis Banks holds closely to his soul.
Can’t say I made a friend that evening, perhaps so, but nevertheless, it was a positive experience.
However, I was glad I went and more so that it wasn’t tainted with anything Peltier.
“In the Spirit of Coler and Williams”
*The selfie, for obvious reasons, showing only Dennis.
1) See Editorial Essay and footnote 2: http://noparolepeltier.com/debate.html#Robideau-NYC
2) Presidents Washington, Jefferson, T. Roosevelt, Lincoln supplanted with Chief Joseph, Sitting Bull, Geronimo and Red Cloud.
3) Churchill http://noparolepeltier.com/churchill.html
4) Paraphrased from historian Stephen Ambrose; reference last accessed 9/28/15: https://books.google.com/books?id=n2J675woMLwC&pg=PA28&dq=Stephen+Ambrose+indian+geocide&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CCcQ6AEwAWoVChMI3OiK9cmVyAIVFhiSCh27NwPp#v=onepage&q=Stephen%20Ambrose%20indian%20geocide&f=false