October said goodbye to Dennis Banks, a Native American activist who co-founded the American Indian Movement and helped lead many demonstrations – most notably the 10-week 1973 armed occupation of Wounded Knee – that brought long-festering tribal wounds to national attention.
Banks was a member of the Ojibwa, or Chippewa, tribe, and was also known by his Ojibwe name Nowa Cuming, which means “in the center of the universe.” He died on Oct. 29 from complications from pneumonia after recent open-heart surgery, surrounded by family.
The American Indian Movement (AIM) was brought to life in 1968 by Banks and Clyde Bellecourt, an Ojibwa he met in prison after being arrested for a burglary upon returning from his time of service with the Air Force in Japan. This was a way to challenge what he and other activists considered the U.S. government’s centuries-long exploitation and mistreatment of Native Americans. Within a year, AIM joined a lengthy occupation in Alcatraz Island, the former federal prison site in San Francisco Bay. In 1972, Banks also participated in an AIM occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington.
In a 1984 interview, Banks described himself as a “nightmare to the judicial system,” and lived the life to prove it. He spent periods as a fugitive or in prison for crimes associated with his demonstrations, including a charge for assault and rioting after a 200-protestor face-off with police in Cluster, S.D. in 1973 after a white man was charged with involuntary manslaughter, not murder, for killing an Indian in a saloon brawl.
“We had reached a point in history where we could not tolerate the abuse any longer…where we could not see another Indian youngster died,” Banks told author Peter Matthiessen.
Weeks later, Banks and his AIM leader, Russell Means, began the siege that would come to make them famous. The two men, along with 200 Oglala Lakota and AIM followers armed with rifles and shotguns, occupied Wounded Knee, the site where U.S forces had slaughtered 350 Lakota people 83 years earlier.
It turned into a 10-week battle of nerves and gunfire between them and 300 FBI agents and other law enforcement that gained national attention. Banks and Means demanded the ouster of Richard Wilson, the elected leader of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council, whom they called a ‘corrupt white man’s stooge.’ The government refused and the face off left men wounded on both sides. When it was over, Means and Banks were charged with assault and conspiracy, but a judge dismissed the case later on.
Banks is also noted for the Longest Walk, a five-month march from California to Washington D.C. “It was a departure from the actions at Wounded Knee,” Banks told the National Museum of the American Indian. “This time we would pledge to walk across our pipes, and it would be a great spiritual walk.”
After years as a fugitive, Banks found a haven in California, then led by Gov. Jerry Brown, and later on an Onondaga Reservation in New York.
To his critics, including many American Indians, Banks was a self-promoter whose lawlessness did little to help his cause. However, to his supporters, he was the strong voice and fearless defender of victimized people, who after years of oppression had no other choice but to take action and stand tall.
“Dennis should go down in history with the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Muhatma Ghandi, and Nelson Mandela for his non-violent activism on behalf of Native American causes,” said legendary artist , political commentator and Banks’ son-in law Paul Collins.
During his time in California, he taught classes at Stanford University. He also appeared in several documentaries and movies, including “Older Than America” (2008), which explored the devastating effects of Indian boarding schools like those Mr. Banks had been forced to attend.
Banks traded in an early life of poverty, alcoholism and alienation that mirrored the fates of many of his ancestors, for protests that at times caused mass disorders and grievous injuries, but that gave voice to a cause.
Later in life, he also 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. Even in this business, he was building opportunities for his community and raising awareness of Native issues, pointing to a maple syrup label that gave nod to AIM in a 2001 interview with NPR.
Banks is survived by 19 children and over 100 grandchildren, and the legacy he made for young people to continue to keep the movement forward.
“[Banks] was devoted to making a positive change for Native Americans. He criss-crossed the United States visiting Indian reservations, participating in demonstrations including Standing Rock, leading walks against domestic abuse, elimination of alcohol abuse and cure for diabetes,” Collins said. “He was a role model for young kids and all Americans!”
“We will miss Dennis Banks greatly here at The Community Voice/La Voz Magazine. He was a good friend! He should be honored for his service to America and the Indigenous people of the Americas! He stood up for his beliefs and furthered the causes of Civil Rights and Equality for American Indians. He was the founder of the American Indian Movement, an actor, a writer. His activism often came with severe consequences for him and his family. We have all learned through his example. Do not fear in the face of justice!”
Dr. José A. Flores
“Dennis debería pasar a la historia con personas como el Dr. Martin Luther King, César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, Muhatma Ghandi y Nelson Mandela por su activismo no violento en nombre de las causas de los indígenas norteamericanos”, dijo el legendario artista, comentarista político y yerno de Banks, Paul Collins.