Trek from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee


"Like a Hurricane," by Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior. New Press. 340 pages. $25.

The fractious history of the American Indian Movement in this confused book reminded me of the history of anarchism. Anarchism was doomed because it was against organization that made movements possible. AIM and the other Indian protest organizations before and after it were all poorly organized and led so badly they had almost no leadership. Sadly, we now know the suffering, death and destruction of those years could have been avoided by the simple act of opening casinos.

The movement starts with the Indian occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969, ending in ignominious failure because no one thought about food and shelter. Originally supported by Americans in diverse places (the cast of the musical Hair passed the hat in performances), the Indians soon fell to bickering and opportunism, drunkenness and squalor. The federal government responded with its usual approach - it ignored them. The Nixon administration had other problems.

Through other battles, leading up to the bloody mess at Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1973 (for it can't be called a battle), this book is largely the story of Russell Means.

Means is also much of the problem. A brawler and egomaniac, Means had mastered the quintessential American art form - self-promotion. (Pitiably he is the voice of some character in Disney's "Pocahontas," a fact the book mentions without ironic shock.) Means fought with the federal and state governments, and ardently with his fellow Indians.

Purists despised professionals like Means and "Iron Eyes" Cody, the crying Cherokee who wept in the river for the secretly anti-environment group Keep America Beautiful commercials. But at the same time the Indian organizations welcomed the cheap publicity they got from Ethel Kennedy and Marlon Brando, who used them with abandon.

Means comes across as a user, too. His flair for disorganization was never stronger than during the disastrous Trail of Broken Treaties trek from St. Paul to Washington in late 1972.

Their caravan arrived, hungry and homeless, without any planning, and occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They lost what support they had by trashing the place and stealing records (in some cases the only copies) of agreements on which many other tribes depended for claims against the government.

The book as history fails to remind the reader of the parallel history, the Vietnam War, Watergate and so on, to show the relative instability of the times. It fails to mention the date often enough so that readers can know where they are chronologically. And the footnotes are in the oddest form I've seen.

New Press, which I normally laud, hasn't done its editing homework here. The authors, who seem to be confreres of the AIM leaders, are too kind. Whatever the motivation, many of AIM's campaigns are so frankly stupid and self-destructive as to deserve censure.

Most surprising is the authors' decision to avoid any discussion of time since Wounded Knee. What about the relationship between AIM's brave and crazy protests and the modern tribal leadership, suckled by politicians, slot machine manufacturers and crooks? And any author who can't see the hideousness of Russell Means doing the voice for a Disney Indian is no historian.

Jeff Danziger, editorial cartoonist for the Christian Science Monitor, is the author of the novel "Rising Like the Tucson" (1992).

Pub Date: 8/18/96

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