Hendricks: Manhandled by Russell Means

I was manhandled by Russell Means on Pine Ridge. It wasn’t much of a manhandling, but it was symptomatic of the fate of the American Indian Movement, a fate that hangs uneasily over Indian country even today, and so merits a few words.

It happened on Halloween, at Oglala Lakota College, where I was speaking about my new book, “The Unquiet Grave: The FBI and the Struggle for the Soul of Indian Country.” During the question-and-answer session, Means, the potent AIM leader who in the 1970s was admired throughout Indian America, took exception to several of my findings. It was a vintage Means performance: bellicose, self-aggrandizing, belittling, oblivious to any interpretation of facts save his own. After the Q and A, Means continued his critique (much of it unprintable) from about three inches off me. As his threats and insults reached a peak, he grabbed my shoulder with one meaty hand and knocked my glasses off with the other. I declined to take his bait – he clearly hoped to provoke a fistfight – and the host got him away from me and out the door before he could escalate matters.

What had so angered Means? Many things, but two of the findings that most riled him have also stirred passions across Indian country (both for and against me) and deserve discussion.

One of my findings was that during AIM’s 71-day takeover of Wounded Knee in 1973, AIMers killed a black activist. The man’s name was Ray Robinson, and his widow and children grieve him still. Over the decades, rumors of Robinson’s killing surfaced fitfully, only to be denied by AIMers who were in a position to know better. Their denials crumbled a couple of years ago when credible witnesses stepped forward to say that Robinson was shot, killed, and presumably buried inside Wounded Knee.

It is not clear which senior AIMers covered up Robinson’s killing. Nor is it clear whether Robinson was shot deliberately because he was suspected of being an FBI spy or accidentally as a result of an argument or an itchy trigger finger. But it is certain that an AIMer killed Robinson inside the village. Means, of course, knows that the killing will stain AIM’s legacy, and he is not eager to have his place in history demoted. He may also fear that the killing will undo a lucrative option that a film producer has paid him to make an HBO movie, based on his memoir, about the siege of Wounded Knee.

To other AIMers, Robinson’s killing is disturbing because it will give the FBI more firepower to justify its subversion of AIM. AIM had long made the case – correctly – that the vast majority of its adherents were law-abiding and that the FBI had sent spies and provocateurs into their ranks in gross violation of laws against domestic spying. No doubt supporters of the FBI will now argue that the violence-ridden AIM deserved to be infiltrated.

But the truth is less flattering to the FBI, as I discuss in “The Unquiet Grave.” For it was the FBI’s sabotage of AIM that provoked many of AIM’s violent deeds, perhaps including Robinson’s killing. Those deeds in turn led to AIM’s implosion, as the FBI intended.

A second matter in my book that stirred Means’s (and others’) passion is my discussion of whether David Hill, a mid-tier AIM leader, was an FBI mole. Hill has long been accused of being a spy – perhaps entirely unfairly. I don’t conclude one way or the other in “The Unquiet Grave,” and it was a hard decision even to raise the matter: I’m not eager to play the FBI’s paranoia-provoking “Guess who’s the spy?” game.

But what makes Hill’s case deserving of public discussion is that two people who may have known whether he was a fed have recently said or strongly suggested that he was. They are Norman Zigrossi, a senior FBI agent who oversaw informers in AIM, and Thelma Rios, Hill’s ex-wife. Their statements do not prove Hill was a fed. Indeed, Rios later recanted her claim (though unconvincingly, to my mind). And perhaps Zigrossi is still playing FBI mind games. But their statements do make nearly certain that either Hill was an informer or the FBI was (perhaps still is) trying to make him look like one.

Either possibility is important because Hill was involved in life-and-death matters in the Indian rights saga. He was, for example, among the AIMers who were on the run after the fatal shootout with FBI agents at Oglala, S.D., in 1975. Those AIMers were eventually betrayed by one or more informers, and Leonard Peltier was railroaded to prison in consequence. Hill also allegedly took part in talks about whether Anna Mae Aquash was an FBI spy – talks that led to the murder of the innocent Aquash and, as my book shows, to an FBI coverup of the murder.

The U.S. government may owe Hill an apology for setting him up. Or it may owe AIM an apology for setting the group up. But in either case, it owes all Indians an apology for spreading a paranoia that crippled the 20th century’s foremost movement for Native rights. This was a grave evil, never admitted, much less repented for.

AIM, too, could stand to apologize. The group fell victim to the FBI’s attack partly because of its own deep, avoidable and damning flaws. One flaw was thuggishness, as Means’ harassment of me illustrated. During much of its short life, AIM turned to guns and fists to solve problems that gun-and-fist means couldn’t solve. When this inclination to violence was stirred up by the FBI, it led to the murders of Aquash and Robinson and, ultimately, the loss of AIM’s soul.

The thuggishness was compounded by AIM’s refusal to examine its own failings, a refusal, as I discovered on my recent book tour, that AIM’s aging leaders maintain even today. Most of them find it far easier to kill the messenger, or at least knock his glasses off, than to ask whether his message holds lessons. Small wonder that thousands of Indians who entrusted AIM with their hopes for a better life now feel almost as bitterly about AIM as they do about the federal government that destroyed it.

<i>Steve Hendricks is the author of “The Unquiet Grave: The FBI and the Struggle for the Soul of Indian Country,” which Publishers Weekly recent named one the 100 best books of 2006. His Web site is SteveHendricks.org.