Thursday, June 15, 2006

Dennis Banks

[ The following courtesy of the Herald-Review, Grand Rapids, Minnesota, June 14, 2006 ]

"The American Indian Movement brought to life"

By Britta Arendt

“You’re only here on Earth for a short period of time, maybe 100 years, but when you’re dead you’re gone forever. What the Creator gave you, you have an obligation for future destiny; to bring others into the world—think about it.”

This was a special message Leech Lake Ojibwe leader Dennis Banks gave to students at Northern Lights Community School during a warm spring day in early June. Seated in a circle in the grass behind their school under a bright mid-day sun, a small group of students studying Ojibwe this year attentively listened to the illustrious activist’s life story and the lessons learned from it.

One of the most influential persons in recent American Indian history and, at one time, one of America’s Most Wanted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Banks has made it his mission in life to protect the rights of his people. In 1968, he co-founded the American Indian Movement (AIM) and since then he has participated in some of the most infamous protests of the 20th century.

Born near Federal Dam on the Leech Lake Reservation, Banks was raised by his grandfather. When he was 4-years-old, the government removed Banks and his brother from their home and sent them to a military boarding school 300 miles away. For seven years, Banks said, he was not allowed to see his family.

“Back then, the government had a policy to separate parents and children to deculturize them,” explained Banks, now nearly 70 years old. “It happened to thousands of kids.”
Although some close friendships were formed among the children at the military schools, Banks said they were never allowed to speak their native languages and punished for speaking in anything but English. He said the Native children also were required to attend Catholic or Lutheran religious services.

“They tried to make Christians out of us—all this, to take the Indian out of us.”
Banks explained how he tried to escape from military school several times only to be caught and sent back. Because he did not know where he lived or how to get home, he said, most times, he would get hungry and confused and hoped he would be found.

“I knew I needed to head north; no one ever told me but I knew my home was north.”
After school, Banks spent eight years in the United States Air Force and served in Tokyo for three years. During the French occupation of Vietnam, Banks remembered understanding why the Vietnamese people were so determined.

“After 12 years, the French couldn’t win against the Vietnamese mainly because the Vietnamese were on their own land,” Banks told the students. “It’s hard to beat native people who fight on their own land because you’re coming to take their land.”
As anti-war demonstrations became common throughout the U.S. in the 1960s, Banks said discrimination toward American Indians became prevalent as well. Police brutality against American Indians coupled with high unemployment and insufficient housing among the American Indian population became driving forces for founding AIM. Established to protect the traditional ways of American Indian people and to engage in legal cases protecting treaty rights of American Indians, AIM became successful in bringing American Indian issues to the public.

“Because of the discriminatory policies in this country, that had roots hundreds of years ago, eventually something had to happen,” continued Banks. “If the community school here wants to make Tuesday a holiday, why would someone in Grand Forks care? Why could you be trampled on because of what you believe in? AIM was formed to bring about change. We didn’t realize how far they would go to try and stop us; put us in jail.”

In the early years of AIM, Banks participated in the occupation of Alcatraz Island demanding that all federal surplus land be returned to American Indian control. In 1972, Banks helped organize the “Trail of Broken Treaties,” walking 3,600 miles from California to Washington D.C., gathering attention and support in a petition to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to defeat bills that threatened to abolish certain treaties between the government and the American Indian people.

“The walk took five and a half months,” Banks remembered. “We started with 200 people and ended with 14,000; it was a big moment for us.”

Under Banks’ leadership, AIM also spearheaded a protest on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation against government corruption which led to the 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee which attracted national attention. Banks is said to have been the principle negotiator and leader of the Wounded Knee forces.

“We set up road blocks and allowed no one to enter without permission,” Banks explained. “The government said we took over Wounded Knee but we didn’t, it was our land. Then they started shooting at us. They built bunkers and we built bunkers.”

According to Banks, U.S. soldiers surrounded Wounded Knee with machine guns, armored personnel carriers and snipers. Thousands of rounds of ammunition was fired from both sides throughout the entire 71 days, resulting in the deaths on both sides, until the government agreed to look into AIM’s claims of corruption.

Arrested for felony to commit murder, Banks faced 250 years in jail plus a life sentence. His $250,000 bail was put up by American Indian supporter and actor Marlon Brando and he received amnesty in California by then Governor Jerry Brown who refused to extradite him to South Dakota.

Banks talked about the seven-month trial that resulted in his acquittal. After it was discovered that the prosecution’s primary witness lied about being at Wounded Knee at the time of the occupation and the U.S. military was charged with wasting millions of rounds of ammunition in the fight, Banks said the judge scolded the FBI for the dangerous way the situation was handled.

While in California, Banks earned an associate’s degree from the University of California and taught at Deganawida Quetzecoatl University where he became the first American Indian chancellor. He worked as a drug and alcohol counselor on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and established the first spiritual run as well as the Great Jim Thorpe Longest Run from New York to Los Angeles. Banks has continued his involvement in AIM and is an active member of his Leech Lake community, including Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School.
Banks encouraged the NLCS students to learn more about the Ojibwe culture and ceremonies, “Here we have Fond du Luth and Leech Lake reservations and why you haven’t been in a sweat lodge, I don’t know—I’ve been in a few churches.”

Herald-Review - Grand Rapids, Minnesota


  1. I met Dennis several years ago in OH. He had me play drums in a wedding he performed for some friends of mine from AIM. I was called Little Drummer by him. I wish he would come back, I still have a lot to learn.

  2. I met Dennis Banks several years ago in OH. He taught me to play the drums for a wedding he performed for friends of mine from AIM. He called me Little Drummer. I wish he would come back, I still have much to learn and discuss.