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Tim Giago: Wounded Knee book a must read

The name of the book is “American Indian Mafia” and it was written by Joseph H. Trimbach, the FBI’s Special Agent in Charge during the occupation of Wounded Knee by the American Indian Movement in 1973.

It is advertised as “The book the AIM leadership does not want you to read!” Well, I don’t know about that, but it is a book that every Native American that ever had doubts about the many pro-AIM books and movies that have permeated the bookstores and theaters for the past 35 years should read.

Even if you are a dyed-in-the-wool AIM supporter or totally anti-AIM, you should read this book anyhow because it sheds light upon many of the dark areas during this period in Indian history.

So many books written about AIM and the occupation of Wounded Knee and the years there after have been slanted to tell only one side of the story. Any character appearing in any of these books that had opposing views was denigrated and smeared as a GOON. For those not in the know, a GOON was anyone attached to or supportive of the tribal government led by President Dick Wilson, a man that was smeared almost beyond repair by AIM.

One also has to keep in mind that the FBI in those days was an easy target for many groups labeled as radicals. Their actions against the Black Panthers and other groups considered to be subversive are well documented and quite often the FBI became its own worst enemy. It must also be remembered that the FBI had criminal jurisdiction over all lawbreakers on the Pine Ridge Reservation, or at least for those crimes considered to be major crimes.

When AIM first came on the scene in the late 1960s and used its muscle to track police harassment in cities like Minneapolis and stood up to the many laws intended to keep Indian down, the organization had the support of nearly all Indian people. But some of the more radical actions of the movement that actually damaged the Indian people caused many Indians to take a second look.

One of the oldest and largest Indian organizations, the National Congress of American Indians, was very confused about this new group when they came on the scene in the early 1970s. As an establishment organization, NCAI had followed the rules and the group’s leaders were confused by the boldness of AIM especially when it came into its stomping grounds of Washington, DC and occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters.

In his book “The Road to Wounded Knee,” Robert Burnette, the former President of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, a man who as present in Washington during the BIA takeover, wrote about his ambivalence on what was happening before his very eyes. He praised the courage of men like Russell Means, Vernon and Clyde Bellecourt and Dennis Banks, but he was taken aback by their violent actions and he soon realized that they would lose the support of many Indians if they persisted.

When AIM demanded money from the BIA before it would abandon the BIA headquarters, Burnette believed that this was the wrong road to take. He was particularly appalled at the destruction taking place within the BIA building. Vital records were scattered around the floors of the building and boxes of records were carted off in boxes. He knew this would harm those Indians whose future depended upon these records.

According to Burnette, BIA officials were too fearful of AIM to enter the BIA building and so they convinced Charles Trimble, then director of NCAI, to deliver the $50,000 to the AIM leadership. Again, according to Burnette, Trimble took the money to the BIA headquarters in a large bag, dropped the money on the BIA steps and then took off. Trimble has denied that to this day.

That is just a short prelude to the events leading up to the occupation of Wounded Knee and Joe Trimbach had a bird’s eye view of all of the happenings outside and within the community of Wounded Knee during and after the occupation.

His book is written from the tough law enforcement reaction to the occupation, but it is laced with stories from many of those Lakota people living on the Pine Ridge Reservation during those dark days and their poignant retellings of those events are the most interesting parts of this book. From his perspective, laws were broken and he and the FBI set out to set the law straight.

As I said, this book is a must read for every Native American that ever read a book on AIM and Wounded Knee, and it will undoubtedly be a major lesson in contemporary history for many non-Indian also. It is a book that reiterates the fact that there are always two sides to every story.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991. He can be reached at

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