Charles Trimble: Firebomb incident at Pine Ridge still a mystery

The recent Native Sun News story, posted on January 19 on Indianz.com, gives much favorable space to retired FBI agent Joseph Trimbach, and much publicity to his 2008 book, Native American Mafia.

Perhaps the agent should be questioned about why the FBI apparently did nothing to investigate the firebombing of the Lakota Times office at Pine Ridge, nor about the several attempts on Lakota Times publisher Tim Giago’s life. After all, arson and attempted murder are both crimes under FBI jurisdiction, according to the Major Crimes Act.

In one of Giago’s columns in 2011 he reflected on the early history of the Lakota Times – the newspaper that launched him into national notoriety. In particular, he recalled a firebombing incident that he surmises was in retaliation for his editorial criticisms of the American Indian Movement. Then he told about having the windows of his office shot out several times, and telephone threats to his home, and of having to dodge bullets late one rainy night as he left his office and made a dash for his car.

In researching for a possible book on the 1960s-1980s era in Indian history, one of the important resources I have is the entire run of Lakota Times newspapers, from the first issue in 1981 to when it became Indian Country Today. The Native press is an important part of the historic era I am writing about, and certainly the firebomb story is an important historical incident. So I dug out the October 22nd, 1982 issue of the Times in which the headline blazed across the front page “Terrorists Firebomb Lakota Times.”

The Times story begins with an account of Grover Horned Antelope, a Lakota holy man, trying frantically to phone Giago to warn him of the impending attack. It seems that in a sweat lodge ceremony, the holy man received a premonition of the bombing and he immediately cut short the ceremony to get to a phone and call Giago, but he could only get Lakota Times staff; Giago was on travel. The account doesn’t tell why the holy man didn’t warn the staff members instead.

Although the incident occurred on a late Sunday night and was first reported in the Times’ next issue three days later, the story reads with a breathless immediacy. Excitedly, the story gives witness accounts of a car that drove slowly by the Times office, finally stopping. Two young men jumped out and one of them yelled, “Let’s do it!” whereupon they threw several firebombs against the building.

Word of the firebombing apparently spread fast across America for, according to the Times story, phone calls flooded their office all the following day – even before the Times came out with the story, and these came from across the nation, all wishing Giago well, and encouraging him not to give in to terror.

I researched all the Lakota Times issues for six months following the firebombing story to learn more of what happened, but could find no more facts about it. Giago’s own column the following week gives no further details but expressed a brave resolve never to be bullied by such terrorist actions. A few others mention the incident in the letters to the editor section.

But the Times news section carried no further coverage about the incident. There were no reports on any involvement of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has primary jurisdiction on Indian reservations in certain crimes under the Major Crimes Act (U.S. Statutes at Large, 23:385), which placed seven major crimes, including arson under federal jurisdiction if they are committed by a Native American against another Native American in Native territory.

The original story tells that an agent from the office of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was on his way to Pine Ridge to investigate, but no further mention is made of any investigation by the ATF. Although the original story told of witnesses who saw the two young men who threw the firebombs, there was nothing about anyone being caught. The Lakota Times never carried a single follow-up news story on the firebombing – no further details on what happened or of investigations by tribal police, FBI or ATF. Nothing.

This event warrants an investigative follow-up for the sake of history, as well as justice. And more importantly it would look into the failure of the FBI to do any serious investigating, and to protect the First Amendment rights of an Indian newspaper.

Because it was allegedly AIM members who killed two of their agents, the FBI seemingly would have taken every measure possible to arrest and convict any AIM suspects of the firebombing. But no news appeared in the Lakota Times about any investigation, and there was nothing on the editorial pages demanding an accounting by the FBI, ATF or the Tribal police as to why nothing was being done.

I sent a draft copy of this story to Mr. Giago and asked for his comments, and received the following note in an email:
“We published the story (of the firebombing) when it happened. A couple of weeks ago we ran a photo of our burned building in the “Way it was” section of Native Sun News. After the incident and the prior and ensuing threats to me, my staff and my family, we just let the whole thing die. We saw no future in tempting fate with a lot of rhetoric. It's as simple as that so why would you try to make it appear that it was a publicity stunt? If you don't think there was fear at our office and home, call Doris Giago at SDSU and ask her.”

I had not even insinuated that the firebomb story was a publicity stunt, and am satisfied with his explanation that it was fear of reprisal that no further news about the incident was ever carried in the Lakota Times. Although it belies the bravado of his editorial a week following the firebombing, Giago’s admission of fear makes his explanation plausible.

However, the question remains why the FBI or the ATF didn’t investigate the attempted arson or the several attempts on Giago’s life, as they should have been expected to do in accordance with the Major Crimes Act. Joseph H. Trimbach, the FBI’s Special Agent in Charge (SAC) for a three-state area including South Dakota, quotes Giago’s account of the firebombing in his 2008 book, American Indian Mafia, but he makes no mention of any FBI actions to even investigate, let alone prosecute.

The story is not complete until the terrorists who perpetrated the foul deed are brought to light and law. Justice must be served, and so must history.

Charles "Chuck" Trimble, was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and is a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970, and served as Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-1978. He is retired and lives in Omaha, NE. He can be contacted at cchuktrim@aol.com and his website is www.iktomisweb.com.

More from Charles Trimble:
Charles Trimble: Nebraska's Ponca Tribe loses a great leader (1/16)
Charles Trimble: Indian youth share important lesson with us (1/2)
Charles Trimble: Gyasi Ross is a great new writer among us (12/12)
Charles Trimble: Stop treating Indian students like the victims (11/29)
Charles Trimble: Thanksgiving out among the colonized people (11/23)
Charles Trimble: Doing right for the 'Children of the Plains' (10/24)
Charles Trimble: Two Oglala Sioux men earn places in history (10/10)
Charles Trimble: Injustice in removal of Cherokee Freedmen (9/12)
Charles Trimble: Don't mess with this 84-year-old Dakota lady (9/6)
Charles Trimble: US manipulation of tribes goes back centuries (9/2)

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