Dennis Banks and Patty Hearst: When AIM Met the SLA
By Sandra Hale Schulman
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 last October; and Patricia Hearst, the kidnapped heiress who has recently been the subject of renewed attention with a book and mini-series on CNN about her ordeal.
In Bank’s autobiography Ojibwa Warrior he writes of an “absolutely crazy” time in the 1970s when he was on trial for the occupation of Wounded Knee and the FBI was desperately trying to put him away for life while at the same time they recruited him to do some undercover work for them.
The reason was the activities of another activist group – The Symbionese Liberation Army, who had kidnapped Patty Hearst and was demanding her father Randolph Hearst give money to various groups to distribute to the needy of San Francisco. They requested Hearst pony up $50‐million just to be able to open negotiations to get back his daughter, Patricia.
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 said SLA were “punks” and he would have nothing to do with them. But then two weeks later the SLA released another tape demanding that AIM be involved in distributing the goods and that if the demand wasn’t met they may be held responsible if anything bad happened to Patty. So Banks spoke to Randolph over the phone and said he would be willing to try to help with AIM’s contacts in the San Francisco community. The powerful Hearst then spoke to the judge in Banks’s case and actually got permission for a weeks recess for Banks federal trial in St. Paul, Minnesota to fly Banks to California.
When Banks arrived at the airport there was a media frenzy – and more FBI waiting. 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 officers said “Well we tried!” and allowed him to leave the plane. Banks and his lawyer were then taken to a Hilton Hotel to meet the Hearst family. Mr. Hearst said he had met with Dennis Banks, and described him as an “interesting, very decent man.”
Soon after Banks met with the other groups the SLA had asked to be involved 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. He 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 S.L.A. 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 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 stormed the trucks on city 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 after almost 2 years on the run.
Ironically Banks and Patty would finally meet in person in 1976. Banks had been caught in San Francisco after jumping bail and on his way to court in the courthouse wearing leg irons, the officers stopped to pick up some female prisoners. Banks was hooked by handcuffs to a white girl.
He turned to look and said “Hey you’re Patty Hearst!”
“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 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, he 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.
"We proudly sang him the AIM song as his final send off," they wrote on Facebook.