Dennis 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 Sunday night. He was 80.
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 Sunday night at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He was 80.
His daughter Tashina Banks Rama said the cause was complications of pneumonia after 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.
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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, South Dakota, 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 U.S. 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.
Siege at Wounded Knee
Mr. Banks and 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, Massachusetts, and a televised confrontation between real Indians and costumed “Pilgrims” made the American Indian Movement leaders overnight heroes.
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 AIM protesters in a faceoff with the police in Custer, South Dakota. 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 Matthiessen.
Weeks later, the siege that made Mr. Banks and Means famous across the United States began when 200 Oglala Lakota and AIM followers with rifles and shotguns occupied Wounded Knee. About 300 U.S. marshals, FBI 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 fondest myths.
Proclaiming a willingness to die for their cause, Mr. 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. 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 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 tampered with.
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 earned an associate degree at the University of California at Davis, and became chancellor of Deganawidah-Quetzalcoatl University, a small two-year college for Indians in Davis.
Deprived of California sanctuary when Brown was succeeded by a Republican, George Deukmejian, in early 1983, Mr. Banks found a new refuge on an Onondaga reservation near Syracuse, New York. 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 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 later years.
“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 grandparents.
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 U.S. 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 2 1/2 years.
Founding of AIM
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 AIM, 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.
Besides his wife and child in Japan, Mr. Banks had many children with other women. In addition to 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, 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 party’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.