Radical Friendship

Radical Friendship and the Transatlantic Alliance for Native American Sovereignty

This piece is part of HWO’s feature on Radical Friendship. The feature is an exploration of different configurations of friendship, both intimate and symbolic, and the radical potential of these relationships. You can read an introduction to the series here

‘Dennis Banks talking with C. Biegert’, Dick Bancroft, 1981

Dick Bancroft’s 1981 photograph, titled ‘Dennis Banks talking with C[laus] Biegert’, shows Banks and Biegert facing each other in a room. Claus Biegert, the West German solidarity activist, is sporting a moustache and beard, and is wearing a plaid shirt. Dennis Banks, the American Indian Movement (AIM) leader, has carefully braided hair with a feather at the back. His military tunic-like jacket bears a patch with the word “Airlift” as well as several movement buttons. Leaning towards each other, Banks and Biegert lock gazes, and share a laugh over mutually knowing looks. Their posture and gestures suggest feelings of camaraderie, a kind of radical friendship.

This photograph reveals only a small part of the interpersonal politics of solidarity in the transatlantic sovereignty movement of the late Cold War. After several dramatic protest confrontations with the U.S. government, by the mid-1970s radical Native American sovereignty activists like those in the AIM had begun to regularly travel to Europe to build alliances in order to pressure the United States government from the outside to adopt a policy of Indian sovereignty. American Indians and Central Europeans on both sides of the iron curtain were at once enabled and constrained in their alliance by their personal motivations, attitudes, and emotions. Older cultural fantasies about “Indians” both spurred and interfered with Europeans’ building of relationships with Native Americans for an alliance for social justice. Ultimately, the transatlantic coalition for Native American sovereignty relied on personal trust and radical friendships that endured in providing the nodes for a network of activism across continents.

Building Trust to Build a Coalition

Trust building began when Europeans responded to Native American appeals for help published in media outlets like the flagship radical Native newspaper Akwesasne Notes, which circulated across the Atlantic. After the dramatic and prolonged siege of Wounded Knee in spring 1973, European messages of solidarity flooded the paper, along with numerous requests for addresses of Native American ‘pen pals.’ Eastern Bloc Europeans like Stefania Antoniewicz, leader of a Polish solidarity group, subsequently corresponded with Native American activists and prisoners.

The early visits of AIM activists to both East and West Germany acquainted Native Americans with Europeans eager to support them. An AIM delegation to the 1973 East Berlin World Festival of Students and Youth befriended young Germans who re-enacted “Indian” cultures and history, and activist Jim Castilla stayed for an extra week to teach them about Native American spirituality and the sweat lodge ritual. In 1975, AIM leaders Dennis Banks and Vernon Bellecourt opened a movement office in West Berlin, and visited East German university professor and author Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich, whose writings had done much to shape the attitudes of German youth towards Native Americans.

Too Much Solidarity? The Discontents of an Alliance

Despite German enthusiasm for the AIM and its visiting delegations, the radical partnerships of this new transatlantic alliance had a steep learning curve. The European work in fundraising and communication did not always match up with the expectations of the American Indian sovereignty organizations, and vice versa. The partners ran into differences about principles, authority, control, and representation.

A more insidious obstacle in the functioning of the transatlantic coalition was a paradoxical over-identification with Native Americans by some Central Europeans. Generations of Europeans had been raised on the works of German author Karl May, whose Winnetou novels, written in the late nineteenth century, starred Charlie, a German protagonist who immigrates to the Wild West, excels in frontier feats, and strikes up a friendship with Apache warrior Winnetou. At the end of May’s first book, Charlie successfully talks the grieving Winnetou out of his plan of uniting all the Indian tribes and waging war against the whites, thereby latently asserting a kind of a Christian pacifist morality.

The cover of Karl May’s 1893 edition of Winnetou I-III. (Wikipedia Commons)

May’s novels had sold in the millions, and more recently, the West German western films of the 1960s had reprised this European – Native American friendship. In the audio recordings for their co-authored book, radical friends Lakota medicine man Archie Fire Lame Deer and Austrian-American writer Richard Erdoes explained this strange dynamic this way:

Lame Deer: So if you talk about the respect for our people in East Germany, when you walk there, I have to thank this man called Karl May, even though it was a world of fantasy that he had written about, never seen Lakotas, and made ridiculous things as Navajos with Mohawk haircuts

Erdoes: We were all born and raised pro-Indian, all the German, and Austrian, and the Swiss and French kids clapped when they see the Indian – going “Boo!” when the cavalry come [in the western films…].

Some Central Europeans also entertained romantic or sexual fantasies about Native Americans. In March 1975, a young woman from East Berlin wrote to the lawyers of the activists of Wounded Knee,

I love black hair, I love walnut brown hair, and I love strong black eyes. […]

I love a young Indian, I have seen him in the summer of 1973 in Berlin, but he does not know me. But I love him, him and his people.

The response to such romantic interest was varied, and not always positive. Some Native activists were bemused, others became frustrated. On the recordings for his book with Erdoes, Lame Deer jokingly claimed that “we are being attacked by German women. [Laughter] My God, they are coming in droves. All our Indian men are not safe right now.” In her autobiography Ohitika Woman co-authored with Erdoes, Mary Brave Bird castigated white women who were attracted to Native men and framed their desire as a longing for a spiritual experience:

There are white women, groupies, who are looking for “a medicine man who will put the power right into me.” They are hungering for “a deep sexual experience.” They’ll sleep with anybody who wears braids or a choker.

Because such intimate relationships were highly personal and private, and because not all of them made it into the historical record, these autobiographical accounts can be only indicative, and must balance between analytical rigour and a sensitivity to the complexity and messiness of the lines between movement camaraderie, sexual attraction, and romantic togetherness.

This same cultural history partly conditioned Central Europeans not only for a romantic fascination with an exotic “Indian” appearance of the “noble savage” stereotype, but also to half expect to be the leading partner in their friendships. Native activists called out such insidious benevolence. As Akwesasne Notes editor Robert Antona wrote to European solidarity groups, “We need people to work with us, not for us.” Both sides of the alliance had to work hard to move beyond stereotypes and into deep personal relationships and meaningful work for the movement. Working to meet each other’s expectations and adjust their own, Native American leaders reasserted their authority in the movement, while Europeans learned to support the struggle based on its North American priorities, and not their own assumptions.

Endurance in the Radical Movement: Friendships and Beyond

In Karl May’s first book, Charlie and Winnetou swear “blood brotherhood” to each other. Some partnerships in the transatlantic movement built similarly strong bonds. One of the most important and enduring of radical friendships in the movement, between Austrian-American Richard Erdoes and Sicangu Lakota activist Mary Crow Dog / Brave Bird, had to clear the air of false assumptions in order to build a remarkable partnership.

She once caught me looking at her and at once confronted me, saying: “I know you are sexually attracted to me.” I told her that, being an artist and photographer, I could not help studying people’s faces, whether they were men or women, young or old, pretty or ugly. She stared back at me for a moment, shrugged, and said: “Okay, I half believe you.” We laughed and I was never again suspected of harboring designs against her virtue.

As a trusted friend of the sovereignty movement, in May 1975, Erdoes was asked to head the legal defense committee for AIM medicine man Leonard Crow Dog. For the next two years, Erdoes and his wife Jean hosted Leonard’s wife Mary and their children in New York City, provided moral support to Crow Dog behind bars, and maintained a logistical base and communications center for the defense work.

Such radical friendships helped strengthen the Indian sovereignty struggle in its darkest years, when the United States government was trying to destroy the movement through its infiltration by the FBI, and through the prosecution of hundreds of its members in court. In 1974 Richard Erdoes hosted Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich, who subsequently used her prominent position in East Germany and mobilized her readers to send petitions to the U.S. on behalf of AIM leaders and activists currently in court. As a result of worldwide solidarity, Leonard Crow Dog was released from prison in 1977. The solidarity messages, petitions and donations by Central Europeans helped the teams of the Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offence Committee successfully defend hundreds of Native activists in court.

Some radical friendships extended beyond movement work, and reached into authorship and publishing. German journalist Claus Biegert had been making common cause with his Native American friends by publishing books and creating art, radio broadcasts and documentary films about indigenous North American environmental rights and champions, including White Earth Anishinaabe Winona LaDuke. Richard Erdoes’ collaboration with the Crow Dog family resulted in a book on the wisdom of three generations of Sicangu Lakota medicine men. Erdoes’ authorial partnership with the Mineconju Lakota Lame Deer family produced three reminiscences. Erdoes also helped Mary Crow Dog write her two memoirs. Just as importantly, with Ojibwe AIM leader Dennis Banks, Erdoes published Banks’ activist biography. The radical friendships between these Native American sovereignty activists and Erdoes, an erstwhile Austrian-Hungarian émigré to the United States from Nazi Europe, bore fruit in books that recorded Native spirituality and the life histories of the American Indian Movement.

The radical friendships that served this movement can provide lessons and inspiration to build relationships that can strengthen our current causes for equality. Their struggle against colonialist fantasies, insidious “Indian reformist” benevolence, and for a coalition of genuine partnerships can serve as a reminder that, as Clare Land has observed, real movement work can only happen if it is underpinned by careful critical reflection as well as meaningful action. The desire to reach across our social categories to work for justice must be both tempered and strengthened by a resolve that comes from personal trust and confidence in shared purpose and strength. Radical friendships can provide courage and support, and help build a better world at a time when we need all the friends we can get.



Further reading

Dennis Banks and Richard Erdoes. Ojibwa Warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American Indian Movement. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004.

Mary Crow Dog and Richard Erdoes, Lakota Woman. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990.

Mary Brave Bird with Richard Erdoes, Ohitika Woman. New York: Grove Press, 1993.

Clare Land, Decolonizing Solidarity: Dilemmas and Directions for Supporters of Indigenous Struggles. London: Zed Books, 2015.

Karl May, Winnetou. Translated by Michael Shaw. New York: The Seabury Press, 1977

Glenn Penny, “Red Power: Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich and Indian Activist Networks in East and West Germany,” Central European History 41, (2008), 447-476.

Katrin Sieg, Ethnic Drag: Performing Race, Nation, Sexuality in West Germany. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2002.

György Ferenc Tóth, From Wounded Knee to Checkpoint Charlie: The Alliance for Sovereignty between American Indians and Central Europeans in the Late Cold War. Albany: SUNY Press, 2016.


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