Time Stood Still for Joe Trimbach

By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)
© 2008 Native American Journalists Foundation, Inc.

Time Stood Still for Joe Trimbach

July 14, 2008

When Joe Trimbach and his son John set about writing the book they would call "American Indian Mafia," a book as seen through the eyes of the FBI Agent in Charge during the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee, I was glad to see that the other side of the equation would finally be shown.

To date all of the books I had read on the occupation were strictly from the view point of the American Indian Movement, the occupiers. Since I was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation just 20 miles from Wounded Knee and since I had lived at Wounded Knee as a small boy while my father worked as a clerk and butcher for Clive Gildersleeve, the owner of the Wounded Knee Trading Post, I suspected that there had to be another side to this sad story.

Trimbach emailed me one day and asked if I would write a comment for the dust jacket of the book. He sent me a copy of the yet unpublished and unedited version and I read it from cover to cover. My comments on the back of the book said that I was glad that another version of what happened at Wounded Knee was written and it was a welcome addition to those books published prior to Joe's book. Earlier books contained so much misinformation and outright fabrications and sadly, much of those lies are still out there.

The only difference I saw in Trimbach's book and the AIM leaders of today is that Trimbach's book seemed to have stopped in time. His recollections of the events as they occurred at Wounded Knee were fine, but time marches on.

His anger at the AIM leadership is obvious throughout his book and if we pigeon-holed that anger to 1973, we would see that Trimbach failed to look beyond that year. Things in South Dakota were terribly different in 1973 than they are today and the reputation of the FBI was pretty tarnished back then also.

I was an early critic of the occupation and of the actions of some of the occupiers. It always bothered me that AIM chose to occupy a village on the sovereign lands of an Indian nation. In so doing they disrespected the very thing they had been using as the foundation of their anger: tribal sovereignty. It has always been my contention that AIM would have been much more successful amongst the Indian people and the public in general if they had chosen a path of non-violence. If they had pursued the course set by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi I truly believe they would have won the acceptance and support of the American people.

I know there were those within the Movement that wanted to emulate Dr. King and Gandhi and follow the path of non-violence, but the hotheads prevailed and guns and violence took the lead. I think it was this unfettered warrior mentality that eventually caused so many peace-loving Indians to back away from AIM. But I consider Dr. King and Gandhi to be warriors because it takes more courage to accept a blow than to give one.

But things did change within the Movement over the years and this is the point that totally eludes Mr. Trimbach. I know because I was also a part of that change. I saw the change in Vernon and Clyde Bellecourt, Dennis Banks, Russell Means and others within the Movement. Vernon Bellecourt and Floyd Westerman became my friends and I broke bread with Bill Means and others within the Movement. We argued but agreed that in essence we were fighting for the same things, but perhaps we were coming at it from different directions.

Russell Means went on to become a star in Hollywood, the Bellecourt's returned to their native Minnesota and worked hard for the education and promotion of the Indian children. Bill Means went on to head up many programs beneficial to the Indian people. So time did not stand still for them as it did for Joe Trimbach.

Trimbach spent a short time on the Pine Ridge Reservation but never really took the time to learn anything about the people. Certain parts of his book take a very dim view of the reservation and of its people. His chapter on child abuse is factually correct, but in broaching this sensitive subject he never looks behind the scenes at the cause.

There is still an occasional flare up between AIM and myself and we still disagree on the breadth and width of what happened back in 1973, but like Vernon Bellecourt told me before his untimely death, "Tim, we can still be friends and have disagreements."

American Indian Mafia is still required reading for those looking to have a complete history of Wounded Knee II because the story has been told from only one side until this book.

(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association and the founder and publisher of Indian Country Today, the Lakota Times, and the Dakota/Lakota Journal. He can be reached at