Ojibwa Warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American Indian Movementby Dennis Banks
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Dennis Banks, an American Indian of the Ojibwa Tribe and a founder of the American Indian Movement, is one of the most influential Indian leaders of our time. In Ojibwa Warrior, written with acclaimed writer and photographer Richard Erdoes, Banks tells his own story for the first time and also traces the rise of the American Indian Movement (AIM). The authors present an insider’s understanding of AIM protest events—the Trail of Broken Treaties march to Washington, D.C.; the resulting takeover of the BIA building; the riot at Custer, South Dakota; and the 1973 standoff at Wounded Knee. Enhancing the narrative are dramatic photographs, most taken by Richard Erdoes, depicting key people and events.
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Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American Indian Movement
By Dennis Banks, Richard Erdoes
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2004 [Dennis Banks and Richard Erdoes
All rights reserved.
A Night to Remember
On a dark night you could hear the ghosts crying, the ghosts of three hundred women and children killed by the soldiers, so long ago.
—Dennis Banks, Ojibwa
May 8, 1973—Stand down at Wounded Knee. For seventy-one days we had held out against an army of U.S. Marshals, FBI, a corrupt tribal chairman's private gang of thugs called "the goons," and a bunch of vigilantes, cowboys, and ranchers eager to "bag themselves an injun." Elements of the 82d Airborne had been standing by in the vicinity—just in case they should be needed. The Feds had brought against us a swarm of armored cars, an occasional jet fighter to get a look at us, .50-caliber machine guns, M-79 grenade launchers, high-powered searchlights, and "Snoopy," their helicopter, to spy on us.
We had killed our last steer. We were down to one meal a day, sometimes a meal every other day. We had only rice and beans left, and even that was running out. No flour, no sugar, no cigarettes. Gladys Bissonette had found a can of some fatty seasoning used to make popcorn and a box of powdered spuds. She mixed these together with some odds and ends and managed to make a meal of it. We still had some root tea for the warriors. That was it.
Our lifeline had been the few miles between Porcupine and Wounded Knee, a sparsely wooded area that gave some cover to our runners who brought supplies to us in their backpacks every night. But now the whole place was full of marshals with sniper scopes and infrared night-vision scopes, non-barking attack dogs, and trip-wire flares, which could turn night into day. On top of that, the Feds had started huge brush fires to burn off the cover, making it easier for them to detect anyone going in or out. Supplies were down to a pitiful trickle. Starvation was staring us in the face.
Almost every day now we had fierce firefights. The Feds fired thousands of rounds at us. At night their tracer bullets made a big show, crisscrossing the village from all directions. We were almost out of ammo—our guys were down to about ten bullets per man. A good many of our warriors had been wounded. Miraculously, only two had been killed. Frank Clearwater had been sleeping inside the Sacred Heart church when a bullet crashed through the wall and hit him in the head. He never woke up. Buddy Lamont, a thirty-one-year-old Vietnam veteran, was killed near the Last Stand bunker. He had been pinned down by a sniper, rose up to see where the shots were coming from, and was hit. His death was a terrible shock for us, particularly for Kamook, my sweetheart, who was Buddy's niece. We tried to get to him, but the Feds' fire was so fierce that it took us two hours to recover his body. He had been shot through the heart. His body was still warm when I touched it. The pain for us was very deep.
Buddy's death was the end. Negotiations went on for a few days more, but we knew that it was over. The end had come. We had to surrender. Of the resistance leadership—besides me—only Carter Camp remained at the Knee alongside our spiritual leaders, the medicine men Leonard Crow Dog and Wallace Black Elk.
Kamook had gone with her sister, Bernice, to transport Buddy out of the perimeter to Pine Ridge to prepare the funeral. Against all promises made to her, Kamook had been arrested, handcuffed, and kept overnight in the tribal jail. But she came back to Wounded Knee. She walked on foot over five miles in the dead of night to join me during the last days. I had felt sad and lonely while she was gone. Now I was happy to have her back.
It was the fifth of May. I had to tell her, "The stand down will be on May eighth. Then the marshals will come in, and probably the goons too. So you must leave before then. I don't want you to be roughed up and hurt by those bastards. I don't want you to be arrested again."
Then Lou Bean told me, "Dennis, the police are waiting for you. The FBI is waiting too. The goons have sworn to kill you. You have to get out of here before the Feds arrive." Kamook added, "An FBI agent wanted me to persuade you to give yourself up. He said the FBI would guarantee you safe passage to the nearest jail." We all laughed.
I said, "Thank you, no. I don't want that kind of safe passage."
Kamook left in secret before me. We had made plans how and where we would meet on the outside.
Then a few of us got together. We sipped the last of the coffee. All agreed that I should not surrender. My friends were sure that some of the FBI and the goons would create an incident and shoot me down. Henry Wahwassuck, a Potawatomi from Kansas, was a close friend and head of my security.
He said, "A few warriors have to go with Dennis and make sure he gets through the perimeter."
Len Foster, a Navajo and one of the earliest supporters of AIM said, "I'll go with Dennis. I'll protect him with my own life."
Henry asked, "Who else?"
Len suggested Percy Casper. "He's a good man, a Canadian Indian from British Columbia. You can rely on him no matter what." We also picked Frank Black Horse, a Lakota always ready for a fight.
I said, "That's it. That's all we need. And we are going to have a sweat to pray and purify ourselves."
So the night before the last, we went into the sweat lodge: Henry Wahwassuck, Percy Casper, Len Foster, Frank Black Horse, our two medicine men—Leonard Crow Dog and Wallace Black Elk—and me. Crow Dog ran the sweat. He brought out his pipe and told us, "With this pipe, with this tobacco, and with this prayer, I'm going to make you invisible."
That is what he told us. We all prayed that we would get out without being discovered, that we would escape using the darkness of the night as our shield. It was a powerful ceremony. The spirits came in and we felt good and confident. When we saw little lights flickering in the darkness, Crow Dog warned us not to shoot at them because these were the souls of our dead ones. And we heard a ghostlike crying and singing coming from the arroyo where the men of the Seventh Cavalry had butchered our women and children back in 1890. The Feds in their bunkers had heard the ghosts too, and it had shaken them up. Some of the marshals said later that an Indian on a horse had ridden through their camps and then suddenly dissolved into a cloud, into nothingness.
On the final night at Wounded Knee, we had one last meeting. I told my friends, "Tomorrow the Feds will come in armed to the teeth with their APCs. They say they just want us to disarm, to give up our weapons. They are lying. They will handcuff the men and take them in buses to the nearest slammer. I don't like handcuffs and leg irons on me. I will not surrender. The Feds have slapped $160,000 bail on me, and I could not possibly come up with that kind of money. I would have to go underground and lie low until it was time to surface."
Carter Camp, Leonard Crow Dog, and Wallace Black Elk decided to submit to arrest the next morning. They wanted the honor of being the last ones out of Wounded Knee, and they deserved it.
"I'll give you my forwarding address," said Carter. "Pennington County Jail, Rapid City."
Others came with me that night. I told the warriors to take their rifles and shotguns with them. "You never know when you might have to defend yourselves. The goons are out there."
We had to pick a safe way out of the Knee. We were tightly surrounded. Everywhere the Feds had roadblocks, and at every roadblock there was an APC (armored personnel carrier) and maybe a Jeep or two—also German shepherd dogs. The whole perimeter swarmed with marshals and FBI.
We finally decided to go out toward the north across the creek in the direction of Porcupine Butte. Some warriors had scouted the area and thought the north was not as densely held by the Feds as the south, west, and east. Then Lou Bean came up with a great idea—a group of women would cause a diversion at the south end of the perimeter to draw the Feds' attention to that point, while we headed north.
Night fell. It was about 9:00 p.m. when we were ready. South near a roadblock, Lou Bean and about twenty other women started a tremendous racket. You could hear the Feds' radios informing one another, "Significant activity over there." Big flood lights, which they had used to scan all of Wounded Knee, were suddenly trained on that area. We grabbed our opportunity to sneak out. I will never forget the brave women who, throughout the seventy-one days of the siege, gave us their support.
The five of us were traveling light. We each had a small backpack. My four companions also had their rifles, and that was it. We went in single file. Len Foster walked point, then came Henry, me, Casper, and Black Horse. When the women thought we had safely gotten out, they quit making a racket, and the searchlights resumed sweeping the whole perimeter again, back and forth. We would run in a crouch about a hundred yards and flatten out whenever the lights fanned over us. Then we would jump up and run another hundred yards, hit the ground again, run again. That is how we got through those searchlights, but they were not the only lights we had to deal with. All of a sudden the Feds started shooting up flares dangling from small parachutes. They lit up the whole valley like a Fourth of July night.
We walked north across the creek. When we got beyond it, we could hear the Feds up on the hill in front of us. They were driving around in their Jeep and laughing. In the gully below were trip wires. The Feds had set them up with cans so that if you tripped over the wire with your foot, you set off those cans. They made a great noise you could hear from far off, telling the Feds where some Indians were trying to come through. Tripping a wire would also cause a flare to go up. I remember that Casper or Black Horse got his leg entangled and set off a flare. He was stumbling around. Henry got really mad at him, really pissed off, and told him in no uncertain terms to watch himself. We did not want to be stopped and get into an armed confrontation.
We were lucky. We got through that gully without incident and hustled along at a fast clip. Now and then Lenny, our point man, would scout ahead, telling us, "Wait right here. Let me make sure that we don't run into some of those pigs." He would go over the next hill and make certain no Feds were there. Then he would come back and tell us the coast was clear and we'd hustle on again. We would stay inside ravines as much as we could to avoid being discovered. Unfortunately, the ravines were not straight. They zigzagged all over the place. We would walk maybe three miles, but gained only one. All this took time—it took us maybe two hours to cover a mile and a half.
We finally got up to a high, open area with lots of trees, but where we had to go there was a stretch of about one hundred and fifty yards without any cover at all. At the end of that was a tree line. There was no help for it. We had to cross that open space while occasional flares turned night into day. So I said, "Okay, one at a time. Let's make a run for it!" We did, and suddenly there was that Jeep. It had two Feds in it and a German shepherd. We were in the vehicle's shadow and it covered us. Everybody hit the ground and flattened out while the Jeep drove right by us. They didn't even see us. I knew Crow Dog's medicine was working.
Man, my heart was pounding! I thought, "Is this what it comes down to!" We were out in the open and the tree line was still some seventy or eighty yards away. We just had to get into those trees. Well, we made it into the woods and felt a little safer. Then we heard an owl hooting. It was sitting in a tree trying to tell us something. In almost all Indian tribes the owl is looked upon as a messenger, a bringer of bad news. If an owl visits you it means that somebody is going to die. The owl kept hooting. I said, "It is warning us that there is danger ahead." We were walking toward Porcupine Butte, and the owl was flying ahead of us as if it wanted to show us the way.
Then Lenny said, "Instead of walking cross-country over all those hills for ten or eleven miles, why don't we take a shortcut? I know the country around here. There's a road over there, no more than a mile away."
I said, "Why not, instead of humping over every hill."
So we cut across, hit a fence, and climbed over it. Once in a while we could see the lights of a car on the road. Wounded Knee was way behind us and we felt good about it. It was about one o'clock in the morning and pitch dark. No moon. We were walking along the edge of the road. When we got to Porcupine Butte we looked for Ellen Moves Camp, who was supposed to meet us there with a car, but she was not there. We saw cars coming toward us a mile or two ahead, and we hid in the brush by the side of the road. While planning our escape, we had passed word to those who were to meet us to blink their lights twice every half-mile, but these cars did not blink their lights. We remained out of sight. We found out later that these were U.S. Marshals patrolling the whole area.
We made good time from then on. We climbed over another fence, moving fast. About five o'clock in the morning, we got to about a mile south of Porcupine Butte. We were on a hill and down below was the village with lights coming from some of the windows. We came to a big open area—I think it was a landfill or trash dump—and there was a white car sitting there. The lights were not on but we could hear the engine. More than that, we could hear loud laughter. It sounded like some skins hanging out with their girls.
Lenny asked, "What shall we do?"
I said, "Go over there and check them out. Maybe it's someone we could catch a ride with."
So one of the guys sneaked up to the car and checked it out. He came loping back and said, "They are inside the car. They are talking and laughing like they're having a big party in there."
I said, "Well, let's go and surprise them."
We walked up to the car and we were the ones who were surprised. Henry opened the door. A light went on inside and there they were—two U.S. Marshals in their camouflage suits with an AR-15 sitting between them. They were as shocked as we were. They took off in a hail of gravel that hit us in the face.
We knew that once they realized we were only a handful of fugitives, they would be back in a hurry. I told the boys, "Let's get out of here!" The area west of the highway was densely wooded, so we took off toward it. We were walking along the trees when we heard cars pull up. They brought dogs out to do some sniffing. Our adrenaline was surging. We ran on for maybe a half-mile, but somehow they kept up with us. We could hear them with their bullhorn telling us, "Come on out of there. Come on out. Throw your weapons down."
They had left their cars and gotten right on top of us. Real close. And we heard them talking. "How many were there?" "I saw two of them." "Fucking Indians!"
We could hear the dogs, but they did not pick up our scent. We threw our packs down and laid low there in the brush. The boys had their rifles cocked. I tried to keep calm. Finally, they stopped searching for us and left. We got up and scattered ourselves in the woods. That is when we got separated and lost touch.
It was getting light. I was alone. I heard barking and saw two marshals coming with a couple of dogs. They had not picked up my scent yet. They were just combing the woods because they knew someone was out there. I ran over a hill and the dogs must have seen the movement—they started barking and howling like mad. They were coming toward me, getting closer and closer. I knew that over the next hill was the school Our Lady of Lourdes. I ran over there, through the campus to the road, where I saw three mobile homes.
I knocked on one door and an Indian lady opened it. She cried, "Dennis Banks! Come inside quick! Where did you come from?" I told her and she said, "Wow!" She glanced out the window and saw the marshals coming with the dogs. The kind, stout-hearted lady pushed me into some dark cubbyhole, saying, "Stay there. Don't worry. I won't let these pigs come into my home."
The marshals let their dogs loose, hoping they would pick up my scent somehow. They didn't know it was me they were chasing. They were just after some nondescript, suspicious Indians. Otherwise, there would have been more Feds.
Porcupine, like most reservation towns, was full of skinny, mangy, hungry, and mean reservation dogs. They came running, tearing into those big, fat, overfed police dogs. It was one of the most vicious dogfights I have ever seen. In a moment, there was just a snarling tangle of legs, tails, and teeth. The marshals were trying to save their dogs from being torn to pieces. They had lost all interest in me.
The nice lady fried up some eggs for me and gave me a big mug of "black medicine." She let me use her phone. I dialed a number in Rapid City where I thought Kamook might be, and I guessed right. A while later, Ellen Moves Camp showed up with Kamook. The marshals were gone and I could relax a bit. Ellen said they had been at Porcupine Butte hours before, but had been chased off by the Feds. They asked what had become of the boys, but I didn't know. We hung around there for another two or three hours checking the area, but didn't find a soul. We found out later that they had made it safely to the house of John Attacks Them, a friend of Casper's. John hid them, and a couple days later got them safely to Crow Dog's place at Rosebud. Kamook and I finally made it to Rapid City, where we stayed for a very short time with friends. I think that the power of the pipe and the sweat lodge, the songs and the prayers, protected us, and as Crow Dog had said, made us—in a way—invisible.
Excerpted from Ojibwa Warrior by Dennis Banks, Richard Erdoes. Copyright © 2004 [Dennis Banks and Richard Erdoes. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Dennis Banks has been an activist, counselor, teacher, and consultant on American Indian rights. He now owns a natural foods company in Federal Dam, Minnesota, that follows the traditions of his youth.ÿ
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Ojibwa Warrior was hard to put down. It was one of the few books I have read that evoked every single emotion I hold. From sorrow and tears to rage and disgust so strong, it literally stoked my adrenaline. It is important to get what is REAL American History - told, taught or reminded ... whatever should be the case. But more importantly, it is way past time for change ... Fantastic job Dennis, absolutely fantastic.
Boo-zhoo Everyone! If you are looking for a great book about the number one modern Native hero, this is it. I was so looking forward to getting this book and it was all I hoped it would be. Highly recommended, great read, especially if you want to know about Wounded Knee.
This is an amazing book. I would recommed reading it if you are interested in the Native American struggles.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the American Indian Moevement or otherwise known as AIM. This book is told through the eyes of Dennis Banks. It has everything you ever wanted to know about Dennis Banks and his life. Great book for anyone who wants to learn about AIM!