Book Review: "American Indian Mafia"
Review by Tony Allen
“American Indian Mafia”by Joseph Trimbach
Outskirts Press Inc.
If you were or are even nominally involved with the politics of the far-left, than you are already familiar with the name Leonard Peltier and the American Indian Movement (AIM). The two are held up as unquestionable examples of the United State’s government’s very real “war” against Native Americans who the government perceives as being trouble makers.
However, much like the Black Panthers and other lesser known groups whose politics revolved around race and whose rhetoric is perceived as being progressive or even “revolutionary”, AIM has been shamelessly romanticized. This, while the group’s most well known personality, Leonard Peltier, who is said to be a “political prisoner” and has garnered support from people throughout the world.
When I first started getting involved with supporting Mumia, I also sought to help Leonard Peltier. Intrigued about Peltier’s case after viewing a music video by the band “Rage Against The Machine” that featured some of the “facts” about the case and encouraged by my comrades on the left I set out to learn more. I read up on Peltier and soon was out to enthusiastically spread the gospel of Leonard Peltier and the American Indian Movement. My belief at the time was that both AIM and Peltier were victims of a government program known as COINTELPRO, that sought to “neutralize” radical or subversive groups like AIM and their members. In that context, I viewed it as an extension of America’s policy of genocide towards Native Americans.
In his new book, former FBI agent Joseph Trimbach, seeks to set the record straight about AIM and in his exhaustively researched and meticulous book of over 600 pages does just that and does so much more. But this is not just a history of AIM, it’s violent and deadly confrontations with authorities and other Native Americans. “American Indian Mafia” is also a memoir of an FBI Special Agent in Charge, who, for a time led the FBI efforts at Pine Ridge to free the reservation from the radicals from AIM whom had taken it over.
Instead of writing from the vantage point of an ideologue who merely spouts off rhetorical barrages at political enemies, Trimbach takes readers back to the front lines and forces upon readers the very real fact that extreme ideas have consequences that can be deadly and destructive. Like any good investigator, Trimbach follows AIM’s path of violence and has no scruples about explaining the mistakes and failures of the government to properly handle the situation. He blasts Federal Judges for making rulings based on politics instead of justice, describes how in early days of AIM that it was receiving government money, and chronicles the frustration of wading through a bureaucratic nightmare just to make sure the men he was responsible for got the weapons and equipment needed to defend themselves against radicals bent on killing them. His frustration over having he and his men forced to into a situation they were not trained to handle and saddled with the kind of rules of engagement that pretty much left his men defenseless in the face of nightly sniper attacks give his book a type of credibility and realism that someone else would not have been able to capture.
As a former “radical” myself, what I find most interesting about “American Indian Mafia” is not the revelation that the group was responsible for numerous deaths or that apologists for AIM have re-written history and cast AIM as the victims, but that the government was, if anything, far too timid in their dealings with what amount to terrorists. From Trimbach’s perspective, it was this degree of inaction and capitulation that exacerbated the conflict and led to more violence.
The first part of the book deals with the ten-week stand off at Wounded Knee in 1973 where AIM militants had taken over a town, terrorizing it’s occupants, and making it a war zone. In the daytime the radical attorneys and other activists who had flocked to the aid of the AIM “warriors” made their self-serving speeches and aided in AIM’s efforts to manipulate the media, while negotiators were attempting to bring forth a “peaceful” ending to the occupation. However, at night, when the media had packed up and the radical attorneys were back sleeping peacefully in their beds, the AIM members, some armed with scoped rifles and other large caliber weapons regularly opened fire on law enforcement, who out of fear of hitting the women and children that AIM had stocked the village with, often did not return fire. In the morning, when the cameras and celebrities would arrive, AIM members would tell anyone who would listen of how the government was attempting to exterminate them.
AIM, having garnered the support of the liberal establishment, winning the media war, and the Watergate scandal left the group in the best possible position to make their next stand. This time in court. The AIM militants had left Wounded Knee shattered. People’s homes had been destroyed, many had no place to go. Over a dozen people were injured and the siege left two people dead. The White House, for it’s part, sent a delegation not to assist the residents of Wounded Knee whose lives were wrecked, but instead to discuss treaty rights with the militants.
Despite the massive amount of evidence against them, the AIM members evaded justice when the Judge who hosted an AIM leader in his home concluded that “government misconduct” had taken place and tossed out all of the charges. It was a textbook example of radicals turning a courtroom upside down and made the criminals seem like the victims.
Trimbach goes over all of this in his book what becomes clear to see is that the foundation was being laid for what would come to be the signature moment for AIM and would be the genesis of a thousand lies. That moment would be the day that two FBI agents would be gunned down while searching for a fugitive in June of 1975.
It is this pivotal event that is the reason that AIM is still even discussed. Three AIM members would be charged with the murders. The first two were acquitted by a jury. Leonard Peltier is caught and extradited from Canada and is tried and convicted for his role in the murder of the two Agents. He receives a sentence of two life terms and so begins his transformation from a thug who mercilessly assassinated two men to a “political prisoner” who has been celebrated by Hollywood elites and has a world-wide campaign waged in an effort to win his freedom.
Joseph Trimbach shows his investigation skills in his compelling examination of the case against Leonard Peltier as he tackles the conspiracy theories that have provided sustenance to the “Free Peltier” cause since his incarceration as well as books such as “In The Spirit of Crazy Horse” and “Agents of Repression” by disgraced intellectual and author Ward Churchill from the Wannabee tribe.
About Churchill, Trimbach writes that “The problem with political loons like the professor from Boulder is that they never seem to get around to actually addressing the problems of their claimed constituents, in this case, Native Americans. If this Indian wannabe was genuinely interested in the plight of Pine Ridge residents, one would think he would be out in front on the issues of the day, putting his taxpayer-subsidized wampum where his mouth is. Instead, we get substandard academics laced with self-indulgent fantasy under the guise of constitutionally protected speech and ‘academic freedom’... When it comes to addressing the most malignant problems plaguing the reservation, AIM remnants are characteristically AWOL, and in protected sanctuaries of mock scholarship, ‘historians’ like Churchill are clueless.”
In a chapter aptly titled “End of A Myth”, Trimbach chronicles the decline of the movement and the myths upon which it sustains itself. Leonard Peltier, wracked by illness is not nearly as marketable as other “political prisoners” who more readily spout off the required leftist rhetoric. His request for clemency was denied by President Clinton and Peltier has been denied parole once, but is set for another hearing in the next few months. Nobody expects that Peltier will be granted parole. And now, more than ever, with three decades in prison, diminishing returns have set in and the once large and vibrant movement for Peltier exists more or less only online.
As for AIM itself, it is a fractured entity complete with two factions vying for credibility and support. What the two AIM factions do have in common is their support for Leonard Peltier and a shared contempt for the government and Native Americans who do not subscribe to AIM’s extremist ideology. With their martyr decaying in prison and many of AIM’s leaders squabbling amongst themselves, the “movement” they began in the sixties is coming apart. A point not missed by Trimbach, who provides numerous examples of the declining influence of AIM.
One of the most poignant examples of AIM’s demise in “American Indian Mafia” is the tragedy of Anna Mae Aquash. Anna was one of the most well-known women of AIM and was by all accounts a “true believer” in the cause. She would be found murdered on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1976. It was no random murder or act of passion, but was clearly an assassination and for former FBI agent Joseph Trimbach, another example of AIM’s detrimental effects on their own “people”. For years, AIM and their supporters had used Anna Mae’s murder in their propaganda efforts as they would claim that she had been killed by FBI agents. Anna Mae became a martyr for the cause, her “story” turned into a book and was fodder for everyone who wanted to point to governmental malfeasance on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Blaming authorities for all of the violence and destruction that they themselves had caused became a key tactic of AIM and one that the media was by and large far to eager to believe.
Nevertheless, the truth about Anna Mae could not stay buried forever and it was not the government who ended the young h’s life, it was her comrades whom had become convinced that she had become a traitor who had sold out her fellow AIM members to the FBI. As it turns out, her comrades were wrong about her, she was loyal to the day she was murdered.
The bits and pieces of Anna Mae’s tragic story come together in “American Indian Mafia” and what happened to her is somewhat emblematic of the movement she had surrendered herself to. This young idealistic woman finds a new identity and was successful in what many critics of AIM point to it’s sub-culture rooted in misogyny. For her efforts, she would end of being interrogated by Leonard Peltier himself. This large, brutish, thug, a hero to thousands, is reported to have put his gun up against Anna’s head. She lived to make it through another day, but her fate was sealed.
After three decades the truth is finally coming out. Anna Mae was shot in the head and pushed off a cliff by a fellow AIM member because it was thought that she had sold them out. One man is already in prison for the killing and the alleged shooter was recently extradited from Canada to stand trial in the United States for his role in the murder.
Joseph Trimbach wonders what else will come out of the case. Will all of the AIM leadership be implicated? And what of Peltier? Did he know what was going to happen ? These are the questions that need to be asked and more importantly investigated. In raising these issues, Trimbach does more than write a book, he tears down myths and offers, challenges revisionist history, and do so without engaging in overwrought hyperbole. He methodically makes his case with attention to detail and a certain precision that comes from having lived through much of what he writes about.
What I fear is that the people who most need to read this book, will be the ones to ignore it. To convince someone who is even nominally a leftist, to read a book authored by a former FBI agent, that has the endorsement of Oliver North on the cover, is going to be very difficult.
My view, is that this fine book that tells the truth about AIM and Peltier will serve as a spring board that allows for those who are more left of center politically to take on the AIM and Peltier mythology in their own circles, or at the very least be cause for them to accept a more nuanced view of the whole situation. It is past time for people to come to grips with the fact that AIM did not represent Native Americans or even a sizable minority of Native Americans. That the AIM “activists” played the role of invaders in many of their actions and that they viciously abused those Native Americans who did not accept their agenda, and even some of those who did. The murder of Anna Mae Aquash being a particularly grotesque example of the latter.
The history of AIM and indeed the entirety of European/Native American has been an unchecked chain of tragedies, one that is un-mitigated by the good intentions of those “progressives” who have poured untold amounts of money and energy into the cause of freeing a convicted, double murderer.
One can only hope that Trimbach’s book serves as a catalyst for a new understanding of the era of AIM on the American Indian reservations. It was, without question, a history of brutality, of needless death, where the only changes that were made were for the worse. That was the legacy of AIM and John Trimbach should be regarded as a man of great courage for writing this book and for doing what a great journalist does best and that is to tell people what they don’t want to hear.