Still confronting: Interview with John Trudell – Theory of the planted operative
Editors’ note: In a running conversation with Indian Country Today’s Senior Editor Jose Barreiro, John Trudell seeks to address lingering issues in the dissolution of the early American Indian Movement leadership and to comment on the case of Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash, the Micmac activist murdered in South Dakota during the winter of 1975 – ’76. Part two of the series covers Trudell’s perspective on the issues of violence in the activist movement. The renowned poet-apostle of Indian activism proposes his theory of a government operative deeply embedded to discredit the movement, during a time of rogue government infiltration programs that sometimes stimulated violence in social and political organizing. Trudell discussed the shootout at Oglala, S.D., in 1975 that resulted in the deaths of one Indian activist and two FBI agents, and other incidents from those tempestuous times. Next week, Trudell addresses his own shift from direct political activities to musical poetics of stage and film.
Indian Country Today: In last week’s interview, you proposed that Annie Mae Pictou-Aquash was targeted in the government’s campaign to break up AIM leadership and discredit the organization during the 1970s. Many people were being accused of being informers through that time but she was increasingly targeted to the point of death. How do you see that progressing, why did it end up on her head and what’s your sense of the sequence that led to her execution?
Trudell: Annie Mae didn’t have respect for people who didn’t deserve respect. I mean, she respected all life and all things, but when people didn’t deserve respect, she would show her attitude. Because there are a lot of people who want to give orders and be bossy that don’t deserve respect. So she had her own attitude and was strong-willed. So you’ve got that factor. The other factor is, let’s look at the group within AIM that she was active with. She fell in with and was around Dennis Banks and Leonard Peltier and Dino Butler, so she traveled with this group – the Banks group – and at that particular period of time between 1973 and 1975, in the running firefight with government across the prairies, this was the most active AIM group. Between Wounded Knee and Annie Mae’s killing, in that period of time, you also had the Oglala firefight in the June of 1975, and again the group around Banks was the most active. I mean, they were very, very active, taking the more militant position just in terms of an armed self-defense. So there was a lot of this going on, a lot of gun energy going on anyway after Wounded Knee. It kind of became a thing. Wounded Knee changed everything in relation to the use of weapons for a lot of AIM. Which changed everything among the main activists. What happened to Annie Mae was a result of those changes, the increased violent and paranoid attitude. And she wasn’t the only one of our people that was shot when the guns were brought in because that’s what’s behind all these deaths in Pine Ridge and everywhere else that it happened.
ICT: The increase in gunplay was a factor; what other factors were there?
Trudell: Since the people that Annie Mae was amongst were the most active, they were drawing the intensity of the federal heat. So, I think, the most important factor: in there amongst them, was an operative, a very special operative. I think there was an operative, one of our own people, well trained, that the government placed in AIM. The government placed this operative in AIM by 1971 possibly. Certainly by 1972, I think the government put in the inside of AIM, not an informant but an operative. An Indian operative to go in and become one of us. He wasn’t alone in this assignment; they also put in informants and snitches and rumor people to create all this and that, but I think that there was at least one operative. And in those procedures, the role of the operative is to get as close to leadership as possible and to incite and introduce more antagonism. I think this operative was amongst us and had been amongst us for some time, and I think that when you go into that group of people that represented the movement – the big names like Dennis Banks and Russell Means and the ones that were drawing the most heat as being recognized as the leaders by the government – well, I think they all in that sphere of the movement had an operative amongst them. Remember that the violence escalated rapidly during those years. The explosion of militancy was surging from many sources. In that summer of 1975, you had the shootout in Oglala, the killing of Joe Stuntz, the killing of the two FBI agents, you had the bombing at Mount Rushmore, there was a series of bombings at Pine Ridge in the fall. And the operative in my mind, as I consider it, was mostly in that group, hyping up the violence. And Annie Mae had gravitated to that most active group and as the government tracked them, she was amongst the people that were accused of doing these things.
ICT: We understand you don’t intend to name the operative, although you do have someone in mind.
Trudell: I am tracking this still. There may be more. You know, there are always very angry or very cruel people that attach to movements. So I know about nasty people. But this main one was nasty with a purpose.
ICT: What happened?
Trudell: I think that Annie Mae was set up to take the fall by the operative so that the operative’s identity would remain anonymous. I think the operative worked some of the susceptible leaders in the movement to focus suspicion on Annie Mae. A “jacket” was created for Annie Mae. This is police talk for creating a public personality for a person. I think he started creating this jacket for Annie Mae in the summer of 1975 after the Oglala firefight. I think that’s when this jacket really started to emerge – these accusations started to come. And I think that Annie Mae was being set up the whole time because I think this operative was familiar with Banks’ and Peltier’s movements and activities in the fall of 1975, between the shootout at Oglala and the mobile home police stop in November of 1975, when Banks and Peltier got away and Annie Mae was picked up. This is an important moment. The leaders of this AIM group are involved in a running confrontation with the feds and something like a planned police operation occurs to that mobile home. My sense is that during that whole time the operative has inside knowledge and participation in their activities and movements as fugitive AIM leaders. I suggest he was setting them up and he was the one who dropped the dime on them. And then when the mobile home police stop happened and everybody had to scatter, then I think the operative set in motion the harsher prospect of arousing the accusations that lead to the killing of Annie Mae. As I see it, this operative had access to the leadership and could manipulate things. Now I’m not saying that they all liked one another, but they all had a common need that was being met, a common ego being played or something that led to them doing this to Annie Mae.
ICT: You are mentioning the trajectory of one person that you have in mind, and we know you don’t want to name this person. There was another operative that was revealed at that time – Doug Durham. He wasn’t an informant either; he was an operative.
Trudell: Yes, Doug Durham was an operative. If you look at that historical behavior of the federal agents, they always plant operatives. They always do, and it isn’t just to us. But I am not talking about Doug Durham; he is not the operative I am tracking. It is true he antagonized a lot of people and this and that, but I’m telling you, Doug Durham was almost like the fake operative because Doug Durham got exposed by the government first. The operative that did the real damage never was exposed. I find it interesting that by 1975, obviously by the time of the Oglala firefight, the bombings started. There was the first bombing that I am aware of – the bombing at Mount Rushmore – and then the series of bombings that happened at Pine Ridge in the fall. I find it interesting that there was basically one person that I know of that was connected to those bombings; and as an interesting observation, the bombing thing never really did catch on for AIM. See, as long as that one person was there making it happen, they are setting it off and doing it, it was happening, but nobody else picked it up. Nobody went with it. I mean, that’s just an interesting little side observation.
ICT: Incitement of movement people to become violent, to do bombings and such: this was suggested by the operative?
Trudell: Yes; and in this pattern of bombings and stuff, see, Annie Mae was made to be connected to that. There was one story that she was made to make a bomb so that her fingerprints would be on it. This was when they were accusing her of being an informant. So I’m interested in the people who made her make a bomb.
ICT: In your theory, the sequence of violent incidents of the 1970s was manipulated by the operative?
Trudell: There’s more than even Annie Mae at stake here. If my theory about the operative is correct, this operative is connected to the firefight in Oglala. That firefight would have never happened without the participation of the operative. This changes a whole lot of stuff. The operative was the one who set in motion the gun play at Oglala, which culminates later in the killing of Annie Mae because Annie Mae knew stuff and didn’t trust the operative.
ICT: There was already distrust by Anna Mae of the operative. She was figuring out this person?
Trudell: Yes, she did not trust this person. Those were her words to me. And this affects Peltier, too. The operative set it in motion. The whole event would not have happened except for someone working for the government. An operative is linked to the killing of agents of the government by the role they played in being the operative. So there are serious implications. Why do you think they won’t give Peltier a new trial? In the Peltier case, the federal agencies admitted in the court system that they’ve lied, they made this and that up, but judges always find a little legal terminology to say why it doesn’t justify giving him a new trial. Because there is a basic truth. What they did to AIM in Pine Ridge, there’s something here that really is very sinister in its own way. And that’s what all of this is about. In my theory, the trail to the operative can unravel everything for them. This affects Peltier. It’s a classic case of a counterintelligence program in operation and it works, and I think that it’s trackable by the people who know how to hunt this kind of way – I think it’s trackable. I think there are trails all over the place.
ICT: So this is your challenge. This is really the reason for your statement to Indian Country Today?
Trudell: It is a challenge to all our good people from those years, to track this operative – to find the operative – who painted that jacket, one piece at a time, on Annie Mae.