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A World Apart : Indian Activists Dennis Banks and Russell Means Are Back Together--but Hardly United--in a Forgotten Slice of America Called Wounded Knee

June 15, 1986|BELLA STUMBO | Bella Stumbo is a Times staff writer.

In some respects, Banks seems almost too modest, too selfless, too community-minded to be true. Certainly, the Dennis Banks of 1986 is a far cry from the Banks of '73, who once confronted a phalanx of FBI agents armed with automatic weapons, proclaimed Wounded Knee a "sovereign nation" and threatened all-out war if they attempted to "invade."

The same intense energy remains, but now Banks directs it at other, lesser enemies. For instance, the Dennis Banks of today can work himself into a state of genuine excitement at the very thought of a prairie dog.

Standing on a gentle bluff, gazing at the miles of rolling grasslands, his eyes shine with the satisfied light of a man beholding a virtual gold mine, as he enthusiastically rattles off his collection of prairie dog data. According to Banks' calculations, there are at least 120 million prairie dogs out there, steadily ravaging about 350,000 reservation acres--"that's if you figure five prairie dogs a hole, around 70 holes per acre."

A natural disaster, to be sure. Except Banks has just made an amazing discovery: Mink farmers, he announces happily, feed prairie dogs to their colonies.

"I called a guy in Minnesota the other day, and he told me he feeds 20,000 minks a day , and he said he'd take all the prairie dogs we can send him--at 12 cents a pound !" Banks grins, every time he says it.

"So, if you figure every prairie dog weighs, on an average, four pounds . . . that's maybe 45 cents each, then multiply that times all the prairie dogs . . . and," he pauses, savoring the triumph at hand, "you come up with at least $4 million!"

All that remains is to capture them. Banks plans to mobilize an army of reservation schoolchildren in what some locals are already smilingly calling "The Dennis Banks Prairie Dog Wars."

Russell Means formally launched his anti-Sandinista crusade last December, when he called a press conference to announce that he intended to take "100 North American warriors" to Nicaragua to help the besieged Miskitos in their fight against "genocide." According to Means, "white liberals" in the United States were sorely misguided in their notion that the Sandinistas were only relocating Miskito, Suma and Rama Indians from their ancestral lands in the government's war against U.S.-backed contra rebels.

"They're being systematically slaughtered, just because they're Indians," Means insisted.

"One hundred warriors, ha!" snorted Means' brother, Bill, 37, head of AIM's International Treaty Council. "Russ'd be lucky if he could find even five. This is just another one of his sensationalist, publicity-seeking stunts." Which gives you an idea of the uproar Means' latest escapade has set off within AIM, traditionally pro-Sandinista.

As it turned out, brother Bill was right. No war party ever materialized. Means himself, however, dropped out of sight for nearly two mysterious months. It was a time of high drama. Rumors abounded. Means was in Nicaragua, he was in Costa Rica, he had gone to Libya. He was dead, he was critically wounded, he was just living it up in San Jose with a new girlfriend, waiting for the wicked South Dakota winter to pass.

Meantime, Means' harried office manager in Rapid City, a white, fast-fading idealist from New York who had been providing her services to AIM almost free, didn't know where he was.

Nor did Means' lawyer, left to his own devices at a particularly critical juncture in the Yellow Thunder proceedings. Even Means' wife said she didn't know where he was, but was "worried sick." Means' landlord didn't care--he evicted Means from his office for nearly two months' back rent, which was the last straw for the office manager, who packed up and quit.

(The cadre of white groupies surrounding Means has thinned rapidly in the last few years. Now he has only one left, an eccentric, silvery-haired woman, maybe 55, who came from South Carolina years ago and lives in her car--unless Means is out of town, when she is usually permitted to serve as his house sitter.)

When Means finally did reappear, he called another press conference to say he and three others had been on a "fact-finding mission" to Nicaragua. His worst fears had been confirmed. He described the horrors he had seen. No deaths, but much devastation, some injuries. He himself had suffered a minor shrapnel wound in the hip, he said, shrugging it off. Unfortunately, film documenting his trip had been overexposed during a customs check, he explained. But Means' descriptions were vivid enough.

Telling how he slipped in and out of Nicaragua with Miskito warriors in motor-powered dugout canoes, he said, sounding awed still, "And now I know the power of prayer, because, when we were escaping, we only had enough gas left for about eight hours--but it lasted for 22! It was a miracle ."

He then went to Washington to offer the Reagan Administration his support in its bid for $100 million more in anti-Sandinista aid.

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