Tuesday, January 11, 2005
I read the book during the last season of falling leaves. I liked it a lot. It jarred a lot of memories within me and helped clarify some things I had not known. So refreshing to get a first-hand account from Dennis, with family info added...
The Following is from THE CIRCLE, July 2004, Vol.25, Iss. 7; pg. 13
Copyright Minneapolis American Indian Center Jul 2004
I asked the 19-year-old waitress if she had ever heard of Dennis Banks. No. Of the American Indian Movement? No. Of Wounded Knee? Maybe a book her mother once read? For that historical amnesia alone, the publication of Dennis Bank's memoir, "Ojibwa Warrior," is a welcome event.
Wounded Knee is the site in South Dakota of a great American shame, the massacre in February 1890 of 300 surrendered Lakota men, women and children by the U.S. Cavalry, a wound in the national psyche reminiscent of the current prison scandals in Iraq.
Dennis Banks, one of the founders of the American Indian Movement (AIM) in Minneapolis in 1968, is best known for his role in the takeover in 1973 of the Wounded Knee site by armed Indians, mostly Oglala Lakota but from many other tribes as well.
The story of that occupation for 71 days against a blockade of heavily armed federal agents, including the U.S. Army (deployed in spite of laws forbidding Army participation in domestic conflicts, a decision that undermined federal prosecution of Banks and other occupiers), is one of the chief values of this book, but hardly the only one.
According to Banks, the decision to occupy the tiny reservation town came from a group of Oglalas, including women leaders, outraged at tribal Chairman Dick Wilson, who ruled with patronage and a posse of armed enforcers. At a rump meeting with Banks and other AIM members, the Oglalas decided to make a stand. Because tribal headquarters were fortified with machine guns, someone suggested taking over the tiny village of Wounded Knee. Only later did the symbolic significance of that site arise.
Symbolic it was. A Harris poll cited by Banks showed that a majority of Americans who were aware of the issues at Wounded Knee were sympathetic to the takeover. For Indians nationally it was a galvanizing event.
In the 1940s and '50s of Banks' youth, the federal and state government's quiet war on Indian identity was in full swing, in big and small ways. In 1942, 5-year-old Banks was forcibly taken from his family and sent to boarding school. By the time he returned to Leech Lake 11 years later, a whole way of life had changed. The new practice of licensing "sportsmen" for hunting and fishing effectively cut out Indians who had hunted and fished year-round for a major part of their food supply.
"Ojibwa Warrior" covers other key events in the life of Banks and the growing reputation of AIM, including a helpful friendship with actor Marlon Brando; an encounter with Jim Jones, the paranoid Kool-Aid preacher, and, even more bizarre, William Randolph Hearst Jr., who enlisted Banks' aid to seek the release of his kidnapped daughter.
Banks spent much of his time after Wounded Knee running from a state-riot conviction in Custer, S.D., pursued relentlessly by then-Attorney General William Janklow (yes, that Janklow). Banks evaded capture for more than 11 years before finally turning himself in to serve 18 months in South Dakota prisons, an experience he portrays in a surprisingly positive light.
There is also much that Banks leaves out. Near the end he offers up a mild mea culpa for being a "poor father" to the many children he fathered with several women - one could easily add "miserable husband," were his women to have their say. Indeed, his longest-term common-law wife, Kamook, on whom he lavishes much praise throughout the book, recently testified in court against the darker side of AIM.
Predictably, he protests the conviction of his friend Leonard Peltier in the death of two federal agents in a chaotic Pine Ridge fire-fight, whereas numerous dispassionate outsiders have come to a different conclusion.
Finally, he only gingerly touches the third rail of AIM, the 1976 murder of AIM member Annie Mae Pictou-Aquash. He does the reader no service by tarring AIM's accusers as "goons and FBI-lovers" for seeking justice for Annie Mae and her family. Recent disclosures, pursued by brave Ojibwa journalist Paul DeMain of Indian Country Today, have helped convict one AIM member of her murder; another awaits extradition from Canada.
Banks' story, for all its ambiguities, remains important, not only for AIM history but also for the arc of his own life. Now an elder back at Federal Dam, Minn., the man who could have been killed so often throughout his passionate rebellion against repression runs a natural-foods business. Some of his old warrior friends are officials in newer, friendlier tribal governments. It is a more just world for Indian people that he, with many others, helped stir into life.
With great help from the self-effacing Erdoes, who has assisted in numerous valuable books on Indian life, Banks makes an important contribution to recent American history, while jogging our collective memory. But "Ojibwa Warrior" is not destined to be the last word on AIM, or, for that matter, on Dennis Banks.
Article copyright The Circle Corporation.