Patty Hearst’s kidnapping riveted the nation like few others in the 1970s. Equally riveting, but far less covered, was the fate of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and its charismatic leader, Dennis Banks, on trial for his part in the Occupation of Wounded Knee. These two events collided in Feb. 1974 when Patty Hearst was abducted by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), which demanded her father donate money, and then food, to the poor of California. The SLA wanted AIM to distribute the food. Banks was given leave from his own trial to attend to this business. Sandra Hale Schulman picks up the story from there.
There’s a fascinating story deep in the history of Dennis Banks, the Native American activist who co-founded the American Indian Movement and who died at 80 in 2017; and Patricia Hearst, the kidnapped heiress who has been the subject of renewed attention with a book and mini-series on CNN about her ordeal.
In Banks’s autobiography, Ojibwa Warrior, he writes of an “absolutely crazy” time in the 1970s when he was on trial for the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota [on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation] and the FBI was desperately trying to put him away for life while at the same time recruiting him to conduct undercover work for them. The reason for this craziness was the activity of another activist group — The Symbionese Liberation Army, who had kidnapped Patty Hearst on Feb. 4, 1974, and was demanding her father, Randolph Hearst, give money to various groups to distribute to the needy of San Francisco. They ordered Hearst to pony up $50 million just to be able to open negotiations for the return of his daughter, Patricia, who they were now calling Tanya.
Dennis Banks interview from 1973, speaking about the “cultural genocide” of the American Indians:
Banks had never heard of or met anyone from the SLA but assumed they had chosen AIM because of their radical activities. At first Banks referred to the SLA as “punks” and said that he’d have nothing to do with them. Two weeks later, however, the SLA released another tape demanding that AIM be involved in distributing the goods and that if the demand wasn’t met they’d be held responsible for anything bad that happened to Patty.
So Banks spoke to Randolph Hearst on the phone and said he would be willing to help with AIM’s contacts in the San Francisco community. Randolph Hearst, using his stature as chairman of the board of the Hearst Corporation, spoke to the judge in the AIM case and actually got permission for a week’s recess for Banks federal trial in St. Paul, Minnesota to fly Banks to California.
A media frenzy greeted Banks when he arrived at the airport — as well as more FBI agents waiting for him. On board the plane before he could disembark, Banks was confronted by two agents who asked him if he would be willing to wear a wire when and if he met with the SLA.
An incredulous Banks said “Are you guys out of your minds? How can you be so stupid to think I would work for you?” The disappointed FBI officials allowed him to leave the plane. Banks and his lawyer were then taken to a Hilton Hotel to meet the Hearst family. After meeting with Banks, Randolph Hearst described him as an “interesting, very decent man.”
Soon after that, Banks met with the other groups the SLA had asked to be involved with the distribution of goods to the poor along with AIM. They all agreed it was a risky deal and that they would rather have Hearst buy food they would then distribute rather than cash.
Banks reported back to Hearst that the group would make a joint statement about the offer. But Hearst met with Banks again and declared he would only offer $2 million, not $50 million, and if they wanted more, they could kill Patty.
Asked if he thought the SLA would be satisfied with his offer, Mr. Hearst said: “This is a gesture of goodwill. There was no guarantee that Patricia is going to get home. This is an honest effort on my part to do all I can, and that’s all I can do. I think they’ll believe that. I think Patricia’s all right. I think it’s up to them, hopefully, to believe me and make a gesture of their own.”
A disgusted Banks left the meeting and then left town, only to be flown back again a few days later when Hearst apologized and pleaded with him to return. At the second meeting with Hearst, Banks agreed to deliver the $2 million offer to the committees who would use trucks to distribute the food. AIM would not be involved after this, and Banks flew back to his trial. He delivered a message live on the radio to the SLA through KPFA Radio that AIM did not endorse kidnapping since Natives knew what it was like to be taken from their homes by force. He asked them not to harm Patty and to release her.
The food truck distribution went on without AIM and turned into a chaotic situation as hundreds of people stormed the trucks that were parked on the city’s streets. Patty joined her kidnappers rather than be released after the food distribution and went on to participate in bombings and bank robberies. She was caught and arrested after almost two years on the run.
Ironically, Dennis Banks and Patty Hearst would finally meet in person in 1976 when Banks was caught in San Francisco after jumping bail. Placed in leg irons, Banks was driven to his court appearance and, on the way, the officers stopped to pick up some female prisoners. Banks was hooked by handcuffs to one of these new passengers.
He turned to look at her and was surprised to see a familiar face.
“Hey, you’re Patty Hearst!”, he said.
“Yes” she said.
“I’m Dennis Banks,” he told her.
“I know who you are,” Patty said. “Listen, my mom told me what you did for me and we listened to your broadcast that night when you appeared on my behalf to the SLA. If there is anything I can do…”
Later that day, they were placed in jail holding cells next to each other and spoke for several hours. Banks told her he was just glad she was alright. He would also see her father Randolph one more time years later. Hearst shook his hand and said he still appreciated the help Banks had given all those years ago.
Banks’s wild ride in the radical groups of the 1970s eventually settled down as later in life he founded a wild rice and maple syrup company, using the sap from trees on the Leech Lake reservation in northern Minnesota, where he was born.
Brian Bull, who was working for South Dakota Public Radio at the time, profiled Banks for NPR in 2001.
“You’d have a hard time guessing the … syrup peddler was once regarded as a radical militant, the same Dennis Banks who took up arms in 1973 or fraternized with other fiery AIM leaders,” Bull said. “You might even think Banks has gone soft in the last 20 years. But ask him what path Native people should take and the fire comes back.”
“If we follow the white man, we’re going to drown with the white man; we’re going to burn with the white man; we’re going to commit suicide with him; we’re going to drink ourselves to death with him,” Banks said. “Why can’t we follow our own dreams? And that’s what I’m doing. I’m trying to follow what I want to do as my dream. How do I become independent from everybody else?”
Even in his maple syrup business, Banks was building opportunities for his community and raising awareness of Native issues. He pointed to a maple syrup label, where it gave a nod to AIM.
He said he didn’t feel the need to be at every political rally, because the young people would carry the movement forward — and that he wasn’t worried whether that new generation knew about the pivotal role that AIM played in Native activism.
Banks’ children and grandchildren sang to him as he died in October 2017. “We proudly sang him the AIM song as his final send off,” they wrote on Facebook.