[News] Dennis Banks, American Indian Civil Rights Leader, Dies at 80
news at freedomarchives.org
Mon Oct 30 17:08:41 EDT 2017
Dennis Banks, American Indian Civil Rights Leader, Dies at 80
Robert D. McFadden - October 30, 2017
Dennis J. Banks, the militant Chippewa who founded the American Indian
Movement in 1968 and led often-violent insurrections to protest the
treatment of Native Americans and the nation’s history of injustices
against its indigenous peoples, died on Sunday night at the Mayo Clinic
in Rochester, Minn. He was 80.
His daughter Tashina Banks Rama said the cause was complications of
pneumonia following successful open-heart surgery a week ago at the
clinic. Mr. Banks lived on the Leech Lake Reservation
in northern Minnesota, where he was born and had grown up.
Mr. Banks and his Oglala Sioux compatriot Russell Means were by the
mid-1970s perhaps the nation’s best-known Native Americans since Sitting
Bull and Crazy Horse, who led the attack that crushed the cavalry forces
of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn
in the Montana Territory in 1876.
Mr. Banks, whose early life of poverty, alcoholism and alienation
mirrored the fates of countless ancestors, led protests that caused mass
disorder, shootouts, deaths and grievous injuries. He was jailed for
burglary and convicted of riot and assault, and he became a fugitive for
nine years. He found sanctuary in California and New York, but finally
gave up and was imprisoned for 14 months.
He once led a six-day takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in
Washington, and mounted an armed 71-day occupation of the town of
Wounded Knee, S.D., on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Wounded Knee was the
scene of the last major conflict of the American Indian Wars, in which
350 Lakota men, women and children were massacred by United States
troops in 1890.
While his protests won some government concessions and drew national
attention and wide sympathy for the deplorable social and economic
conditions of American Indians, Mr. Banks achieved few real improvements
in the daily lives of millions of Native Americans, who live on
reservations and in major cities and lag behind most fellow citizens in
jobs, housing and education.
To admirers, Mr. Banks was a broad-chested champion of native pride.
With dark, piercing eyes, high cheekbones, a jutting chin and long raven
hair, he was a paladin who defied authority and, in an era crowded with
civil rights protests, spoke for the nation’s oldest minority.
To his critics, including many American Indians, Mr. Banks was a
self-promoter, grabbing headlines and becoming a darling of politically
liberal Hollywood stars like Jane Fonda and Marlon Brando. His severest
detractors, including law-enforcement officials, said he let followers
risk injury and arrest while he jumped bail to avoid a long prison
sentence and did not surrender for nearly a decade.
Mr. Banks and Mr. Means first won national attention for declaring a
“Day of Mourning” for Native Americans on Thanksgiving Day in 1970.
Their band seized the ship Mayflower II, a replica of the original in
Plymouth, Mass., and a televised confrontation between real Indians and
costumed “Pilgrims” made the American Indian Movement leaders overnight
In 1972, the two organized cross-country car caravans on “Trails of
Broken Treaties.” They converged on Washington with 500 followers to
protest Indian living standards and lost treaty rights, occupied the
Bureau of Indian Affairs and held out for nearly a week, destroying
documents and the premises, until the government agreed to discuss
Indian grievances and review treaty commitments.
In 1973, after a white man killed an Indian in a saloon brawl and was
charged not with murder but with involuntary manslaughter, Mr. Banks led
200 A.I.M. protesters in a face-off with the police in Custer, S.D. It
became a riot when the slain man’s mother was beaten by officers. After
he left town, Mr. Banks, who said he had merely tried to ease tensions,
was charged with assault and rioting.
It was the last straw. “We had reached a point in history where we could
not tolerate the abuse any longer, where mothers could not tolerate the
mistreatment that goes on on the reservations any longer, where they
could not see another Indian youngster die,” he told the author Peter
Weeks later, the siege that made Mr. Banks and Mr. Means famous across
America began when 200 Oglala Lakota and A.I.M. followers with rifles
and shotguns occupied Wounded Knee. About 300 United States marshals,
F.B.I. agents and other law-enforcement officials cordoned off the area
with armored cars and heavy weapons, touching off a 10-week battle of
nerves and gunfire.
Amid wide news media coverage, the significance of the battlefield was
not lost on many Americans. Dee Brown’s best-selling book “Bury My Heart
at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West” (1970) had
recently explored the record of massacres and atrocities against Native
Americans on the expanding frontier, undermining one of the nation’s
Proclaiming a willingness to die for their cause, Mr. Banks and Mr.
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. Shootings punctuated the days of
stalemate, leaving wounded on both sides. Two Indians were killed, and a
federal agent was shot and paralyzed.
When it was over, Mr. Banks and Mr. Means were charged with assault and
conspiracy. After a federal trial, with the defense raising historic and
current Indian grievances, a judge dismissed the case for prosecutorial
misconduct, including illegal wiretaps and evidence that had been
By then, Mr. Banks was a pre-eminent spokesman for Native Americans. He
mediated armed conflicts between Indians and the authorities in various
states. But his own legal troubles were not over.
Charged with riot and assault with a deadly weapon for his role in the
1973 melee in Custer, he was found guilty in 1975. Facing up to 15 years
in prison, he jumped bail and fled to California.
With 1.4 million signatures on a petition supporting Mr. Banks, Gov.
Jerry Brown granted him asylum in 1976, rejecting extradition to South
Dakota by saying his life might be in danger if he were sent back. Mr.
Banks later became chancellor of Deganawidah-Quetzalcoatl University, a
small two-year college for Indians in Davis, Calif.
Dennis Banks, in headband at rear, watched as his fellow American Indian
Movement leader Russell Means, front left, signed a settlement with
assistant Attorney General Kent Frizzell in Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1973.
Deprived of California sanctuary when Governor Brown was succeeded by a
Republican, George Deukmejian, in early 1983, Mr. Banks found a new
refuge on an Onondaga reservation near Syracuse. Federal officials said
he would be arrested only if he left the reservation. But in 1984, weary
of his confined life, he returned to South Dakota voluntarily and was
sentenced to three years in prison.
Paroled in 1985 after serving only 14 months, he moved to the Pine Ridge
Reservation to work as a drug addiction and alcoholism counselor. He
also turned his life around, embracing sobriety, giving talks on public
service and organizing cross-country events that he called “Sacred
Runs,” which became popular among supporters of Native Americans in
“We were the prophets, the messengers, the fire starters,” Mr. Banks
said in an autobiography, “Ojibwa Warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of
the American Indian Movement” (2005, with Richard Erdoes). “Wounded Knee
awakened not only the conscience of all Native Americans, but also of
white Americans nationwide.”
Dennis James Banks was born on the Leech Lake Reservation on April 12,
1937. He never knew his father. His mother abandoned him to his
When he was 5, he was taken from his family and sent to a series of
government schools for Indians that systematically denigrated his Ojibwa
(Chippewa) culture, language and identity. He ran away often, until, at
17, he returned to Leech Lake.
Unable to find work, he joined the Air Force and was stationed in Japan,
where he married a Japanese woman, had a child with her and went absent
without leave. Arrested and returned to the United States, he never saw
his wife or child again. After being discharged, he moved to
Minneapolis, drifted into crime, was arrested in a burglary and went to
jail for two and a half years.
Released in 1968, he founded the American Indian Movement with an Ojibwa
he had met in prison, Clyde Bellecourt, and others to fight the
oppression and endemic poverty of Native Americans. He became chairman
and national director as the group, based in Minneapolis, forged
alliances and grew rapidly. After two years it said it had 25,000 members.
Within a year A.I.M., with its flair for guerrilla tactics, joined a
lengthy occupation of Alcatraz Island, the former federal prison site in
San Francisco Bay.
After his fugitive years, Mr. Banks had a modest movie career. He had
roles in Franc Roddam’s “War Party” (1988), Michael Apted’s
“Thunderheart” (1992), Michael Mann’s “The Last of the Mohicans” (1992,
with Russell Means), and Georgina Lightning’s “Older Than America”
(2008), which explored the devastating effects of Indian boarding
schools like those Mr. Banks had been forced to attend.
Mr. Banks also appeared in documentaries: “We Shall Remain, Part V:
Wounded Knee” (2009), a Ric Burns “American Experience” television film
directed by Stanley Nelson; “A Good Day to Die” (2010), directed by
David Mueller and Lynn Salt; and “Nowa Cumig: The Drum Will Never Stop”
(2011), directed by Marie-Michele Jasmin-Belisle.
Besides his wife and child in Japan, Mr. Banks had many children with
other women. In addition to Ms. Banks Rama, he is survived by 19
children, 11 with the surname Banks: Janice, Darla, Deanna, Dennis, Red
Elk, Tatanka, Minoh, Tokala, Tiopa, Tacanunpa and Arrow. The others are
Glenda Roberts, Beverly Baribeau, Kevin Strong, D. J. Nelson-Banks,
Bryan Graves, and Pearl, Denise and Kawlija Blanchard. Mr. Banks is also
survived by more than 100 grandchildren, Ms. Banks Rama said.
Mr. Banks was the 2016 vice-presidential nominee of the California Peace
and Freedom Party, which identified itself as socialist and feminist.
(The part’s presidential candidate was Gloria La Riva.) As a
single-state ticket they won 66,000 votes.
In recent years, Mr. Banks lived with some of his children in Kentucky
and Minnesota. He was an honorary trustee of the Leech Lake Tribal
College, a two-year public institution in Cass Lake, Minn. Mr. Means,
who also appeared in movies and wrote a memoir, died on the Pine Ridge
in 2012 at age 72.
In 1990, both men joined a ceremony at the Pine Ridge Reservation
marking the centenary of the Wounded Knee massacre.
“Maybe we opened up some eyes, opened some doors,” Mr. Banks told The
Los Angeles Times. “And it was at least an educational process here.
Fifteen years ago, there was no newspaper here, no radio station. Now
there’s more community control over education.”
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