Prominent Native American activist Dennis Banks stepped into the spirit world this week, leaving a legacy of civil rights changes for Native people. He was eighty years old.
Banks, an Ojibwe from Leech Lake in northern Minnesota, began his activist journey in the late 1960s. Concerns over police brutality against native people led him to co-found the American Indian Movement (AIM) , known as the Red Power Movement.
In 1969, AIM and Banks appeared on the national radar when they helped a group of native San Francisco students seize the abandoned Alcatraz prison, drawing attention to continuing violations of Indian civil rights.
In 1969, Banks appeared on the national radar when he helped a group of Native students in San Francisco seize the abandoned Alcatraz prison, drawing attention to violations of Indian civil rights.
Banks was very active in AIM during the 1970s. He helped plan and participate in the famous Trail of Broken Treaties caravan in Washington, DC, in 1972. Dozens of native people from across the country gathered. drove to the US Department of the Interior building to denounce massive corruption within the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which administers tribal services on the basis of treaties between the tribes and the federal government. This led to a takeover of the Interior building.
In 1973, Banks and other members of AIM were called to the Pine Ridge Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the poorest region of Indian country. This time the corruption charges were brought against the Pine Ridge tribal government and its chairman. For seventy-one days, AIM and its supporters occupied a small dilapidated church in the town of Wounded Knee, refusing to surrender to federal authorities. The occupation began a turning point in the country’s awareness of the historic and current mistreatment of American Indians. In addition, it sparked pride in the hearts of Indians, who had been demoralized by the federal government and society at large for generations.
When the standoff ended, Banks and other AIM members were indicted in Federal District Court. The prosecution was unsuccessful.
AIM served as a bright and burning beacon for greater justice on behalf of the indigenous people. Some of the changes he demanded have taken place, from employment and education programs for Indians in cities to greater responsibility for tribal chiefs. Before AIM, many Indians never understood their unique heritage and citizenship. AIM reminded locals that they are more than people of color. They were First Nations people. And AIM has made many tribal government leaders more proactive in demanding that the federal government live up to its treaty obligations.
While some of his colleagues embarked on other activities after the AIM flame died out, Banks continued to educate both natives and non-natives. Always an activist, he helped organize sacred races across the country, including one in 1984 to demand that the medals of famous Indian Olympian Jim Thorpe be returned. And although he never shared any political aspirations, in 2016 he became the Peace and Freedom Party’s candidate for vice-presidency of the United States.
Beyond his passion for justice, he was also sincerely interested in traditions, languages and tribal ceremonies.
While Banks wasn’t afraid of crowds or the camera, he preferred to organize himself behind the scenes. Beyond his passion for justice, he was also sincerely interested in tribal traditions, our languages and our ceremonies. I remember on the 25th anniversary of the occupation of Wounded Knee, Banks was hard to find at a party. As some AIM leaders flaunted their charm and charisma, working the crowd, I found Banks at the back of the gym with a group of young Indian men. He taught them traditional Indian songs on the drum.
Mark Anthony Rolo is a registered member of the Bad River Band of the Chippewa Indians of Lake Superior and the author of the memoir, My mother is now the earth.