John Trimbach: Even more distortions of Wounded Knee '73

The following opinion by Dana Lone Hill appears in the latest issue of the Native Sun News. All content © Native Sun News.

John Trimbach

A true distortion of Wounded Knee ‘73
BY John Trimbach

In my previous letter to the editor, I suggested the heading; “Wounded Knee Historians – Still breeding” to remind readers of the growing number of books that inexplicably distort Wounded Knee ’73 history.

I provided several examples from Stew Magnuson—the latest self-proclaimed Wounded Knee historian—and his book, “Still Bleeding,” describing why it is not all it’s cracked up to be, an opinion shared by Agnes Gildersleeve’s daughter, JoAnn Feraca, the editor emeritus of this fine publication, Tim Giago, and most Native Americans I have had the pleasure of knowing.

Magnuson’s main problem is the near hopeless task of trying to explain a complex subject based on scant research and speculation in what he admits is not a “full-fledged book.” Magnuson understandably would like his readers to pay no attention to his inaccuracies, but these are serious issues--it does matter.

Magnuson himself declares that, to him, “accuracy is paramount” and that as a “professional writer,” his credibility is on the line. And because Magnuson stands by his errors “100%,” he practicably begs for more examples of carelessness and unprofessionalism. So here goes:

At the Center for Western Studies last year, I spoke of two histories of Wounded Knee, the first being “…the story of how brave Indians held off the might and power of the US government during seventy-two days of very public gunfire.” But Magnuson claims I said, “…a story of how eighth-grade [-educated] Indians held up the mighty power of the US government…” His readers might be wondering whose eighth-grade education he was referring to, or possibly his eighth-grade bibliography, where listing title and author suffices for taking credit for other people’s work, or the eighth-grade mentality of equating pursuing criminals with hating them, or the need for creative writing when knowledge is lacking.

Owing to supposition over substance, Magnuson finds it plausible that Wounded Knee murder victim Ray Robinson was killed by Dick Wilson’s Goons, based on a Carter Camp story, that killer Leonard Peltier’s “paranoia was well founded” when he executed FBI Agents Jack Coler and Ron Williams, that Judge Nichol, who befriended Wounded Knee village destroyers Russell Means and Dennis Banks, and consequently let them off the hook, did so for “perfectly legitimate reasons,” and that J. Edgar Hoover—who refused to be seated at restaurants that would not also seat his black driver, and who was against the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II—tried to crush the civil rights movement.

On the subject of Hoover, I might add that I did not accuse Magnuson, as he avers, of not knowing that the FBI Director was dead during Wounded Knee. What I wrote was that he was mainly interested in asking Hoover gotcha questions, a common mistake among would-be experts who presume to know about the American Indian Movement and Wounded Knee. As Magnuson admits, he’s no expert.

Magnuson is no expert on the Wounded Knee trial either; he confuses the ex parte defense-team meeting Judge Nichol secretly convened, with the joint meeting involving the government prosecutor, a wiretap application with a phone--line memorandum, and AIM lawyers’ propaganda with trial evidence.

Contrary to Magnuson’s accusation, my father never said the party-line phone connected to the Wounded Knee Trading Post “didn’t exist.” That is simply a fabrication, typical of Magnuson’s cheap shots. Lest we forget, he makes no apologies for his opinions, even when they masquerade as history. He informs that “the circumstances surrounding [Frank Clear’s] death remained murky.” Magnuson’s research is what’s murky--Anne Pearse Hocker and “Strawberry” Tofpi were first on the scene and have explained in detail what happened to Clear when he was shot at Wounded Knee. Not knowing this, Magnuson has farmed out that research question, and others, to his readers.

Like some of the distortion artists who preceded him, Magnuson apparently sees the need to change details to suit the narrative—at the Wounded Knee conference, Paul DeMain did not run my PowerPoint presentation, my father had no “sharp exchanges” with Clyde Bellecourt, and Magnuson did not “aggressively” ask Dennis Banks about the disappearance of Ray Robinson. (I listened to the full audio, and if that was aggressive, I’d hate to see milquetoast.)

Magnuson’s devil is in the details: not all the buildings in Wounded Knee were “torched,” there is no chapel currently standing near the mass grave, and our book, American Indian Mafia, does not claim that FBI informant Douglas Durham was a low level gopher. Durham rose to the highest levels of the AIM leadership before his cover was blown, as our book makes clear. But one has to actually read it to know that; Magnuson says he “skipped” through parts of it, evidently the parts he takes credit for, including some of our chapter titles. “Prelude,” “The Aftermath,” and “Parting Shots” became “Preludes,” “Aftermath,” and “Parting Blows.” I suppose imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but it would have been better if Magnuson had imitated our research methods, rather than theorize what “probably” happened.

Magnuson writes that my father, after retiring from the FBI in 1979, “…was determined to spend his remaining years trying to get the convictions he believed the senior AIM leaders deserved.” In the intervening 25 years, up until 2004 when I began writing about the Anna Mae Aquash murder, my father had zero involvement in getting AIM killers from the 1970’s convicted.

Magnuson made this up, in an apparent attempt to paint my father and me as anti-AIM zealots, the penalty for disagreeing with him. While it is true American Indian Mafia exposes AIM criminality, it does not condemn rank and file members. We do take credit, however, for what one of the prosecutors said was instrumental in convicting Anna Mae’s executioner, John Graham.

Our book has also helped spur a re-examination of Wounded Knee related deaths. Of course, Magnuson has an opinion about that, too. Now a cold-case investigator-in-training, he says he doesn’t think looking for the bodies of Wounded Knee murder victims would bear fruit because “a random search would be far too difficult.” That is true, if one does not know where to look.

But Magnuson has no idea where to look for victim remains, or it seems the facts. He falsely claims that my father and I believe Vernon Bellecourt ordered the execution of Anna Mae Aquash in 1975. (We believe it was Dennis Banks. After blaming Anna Mae for the Oregon motorhome bust, Banks escaped to California and found sanctuary with then-governor Jerry Brown. From there, Banks allegedly consulted with Leonard Peltier; the execution order, we believe, was relayed to the Bellecourt brothers, Russell Means, and several members of the Means clan, notably Theda Clark.)

Magnuson famously boasts about being the first historian to “interview” Wounded Knee residents Adrienne Fritze and her mother, Jeanne, but like a lot of what he assures his readers, this is simply not true. Long before he dreamed of becoming a Wounded Knee historian, other writers, including this one, had learned of the Fritze family’s horrific experience from the besieged village. Adrienne is a dear friend and I have visited with her several times, once at her home. The difference is I have not diminished her family’s legacy by including it in the historical equivalent of a coloring book, nor have I sought to profit from her anguish. What’s most alarming about “Still Bleeding” is its unbelievable lack of respect; people’s lives were ripped apart at Wounded Knee—on both sides of the barriers—and the last thing they deserve is to have their legacies subjected to an offensive, juvenile analysis.

I will close by reminding his readers that Magnuson opens his book with an asinine attempt at moral equivalency, lumping together three AIM leaders--all arguably involved in the murder of Anna Mae, among other killings—with the FBI Special Agent in Charge at the time, my father, Joseph Trimbach.

The truth is, Magnuson cannot hold a candle to my father’s integrity and honesty, as evidenced by guest columns, blog postings, and a book riddled with falsehoods and innuendo. And as we know, Magnuson passed on the opportunity to interview a man from whom he could have learned much; I was not surprised when Magnuson asked me to look up information in our book he was unable or unwilling to find himself. Post conference, he followed up with derisive e-mails, silly wisecracks, and this burning question: “What was your father's exact age at the time of the conference?” as if that was the key to understanding Wounded Knee.

Although it probably still escapes him, Magnuson’s speculations would have been better directed towards the people responsible for Anna Mae’s murder. He might have speculated, for example, why Russell Means abruptly left my presentation--as I was shredding the popularized AIM legacy in front of the audience at Augustana College--to summon James Abourezk to do damage control.

He might have speculated why Russell Means’ long-time friend-of-necessity posed smiling, arm-in-arm, with Means and the other alleged Anna Mae killers at the end of the successful conference. He might have even guessed that the senator’s expert legal advice is the reason Russell Means never mentioned the name “Anna Mae Aquash” in his huge autobiography. But, of course, that would have been too much to expect from the author who constantly reminds us of his high bar of truth, “extremely high,” he says, way up there with the Rapid City Journal, the newspaper that gives more credibility to Anna Mae’s killers than the FBI agents who were trying to put them behind bars.

I suppose we should dismiss the accounts that don’t meet the “Stew Standard,” for instance, the lady I interviewed who says she was raped at Wounded Knee by one of the AIM leaders, or the people who administered emergency treatment to the severely wounded Frank Clear, or the secret murder victims Magnuson caricatures into an inflated number.

If not for its falsehoods and distortions, “Still Bleeding” would have a place in a grade school library—some of the information is useful. Overall, however, Magnuson provides a lot of evidence that his book should be read with extreme caution; on several important matters, it is clearly not a reliable source. Magnuson appears unaware that his book also reinforces the utterly insane but pervasive idea that Native people need to be pacified with false heroes in order to feel good about their heritage.

Thus, his long walk off a short pier of research is not merely a stew of confusion and guess work; it is an affront to Indian people, especially the victims of Wounded Knee. So the question remains: when will Magnuson be held accountable for his much vaunted credibility, his sloppy reporting, and his libelous bilge? When will he own up to silly errors and sophomoric analogies? When will he hold himself to the same “extremely high” standard he seems to demand from everyone else? And, as a friend of mine put it, “How much longer will this guy be allowed to use his guest column as his own personal set of training wheels?” It seems to me that the real victims of Wounded Knee and their families deserve an answer. They certainly deserve better.

John Trimbach

Copyright permission by Native Sun News

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