Dennis Banks died on October 29th due to problems after a heart surgery. He was 80 years old. After Russel Means he is another legend of AIM who left this world. Like actor Adam Beach, Dennis Banks came from the tribe of the Ojibwa.
Photo credit by Monika Fitzner
As a child, like many others, Banks was separated from his family and sent away to boarding schools. He managed to escape several times to come home to his mother, but was brought back again each time.
In the 1950s Banks joined the Air Force and served in Japan for a couple of years. After his service in the Air Force Banks lived a hard life in the Indian slums of Minneapolis. After marrying in the 1960s he had a ten-member family to support. Hardly earning anything, he was often forced to steal food for his family. He was caught and sent to prison for two years. He used this time to read and think a lot about the issues of the Native Americans and how they needed to be united in an effective Indian rights organization, similar to the Afro-American resistance. In the late 1960s life circumstances of the American Indians were disastrous. Not only the poverty which still exists to the present day, but racism and judicial arbitrariness ruled their lives. It was not safe to live on the reservations. So in 1968, shortly after he was released from jail, Banks, Loon Clan member Clyde Bellecourt and others founded AIM, the American Indian Movement. In the belief that just collecting clothing and food for the Indians was not enough and that peaceful protest was unsatisfactory to claim human rights for the Native Americans, they decided to act confrontationally.
In 1969 Oglala Lakota Russel Means joined AIM and later in the same year during the occupation of Alcatraz, they met poet and activist John Trudell (Santee Dakota), who joined AIM, too. At this time Dennis Banks was still drinking hard. After an impressive experience of nearly dying of alcohol he decided to stop drinking and change his life and be even more responsible for AIM. Since the members were Natives but had lived in the white world most of their lives, he began to look for a spiritual basis for AIM to go back to their Native roots. He had hardly ever experienced any spiritual ceremonies among the Ojibwa. By this time it was all hidden from public eyes. He found a medicine man among the Lakota on the Rosebud Reservation: Brulé Lakota Henry Crow Dog. The old man introduced Dennis Banks to the spiritual ways of the Lakota. He learned the effect of a sweat lodge and even became a sun dancer. Later Henry’s son and medicine man Leonard Crow Dog became one of the spiritual leaders of AIM and a healer. In 1972 Dennis Banks also found the love of his life, Darleen Nichols, called Kamook among the Lakota. They had 5 children.
One highlight of AIM's activities was the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973. During the early 1970s Dick Wilson, a Native American obsessed with power and a protégé of the FBI, had been responsible for keeping the reservation of the Oglala Lakota in check. By manipulated elections he had become president of the Oglala and began to spread fear and panic among the people with his groups of thugs, called the GOONS (Guardians of Oglala Nation). Using the most brutal ways with the backing of the FBI, he ruled ruthlessly over the elders, women and children. The Lakota then asked AIM for help and organized the occupation of Wounded Knee, the same place where about 300 Lakota braves, women and children were slaughtered by the US Army in 1890.
To support the Native matter during the occupation of Wounded Knee famous actor Marlon Brando rejected the Oscar for his role in „The Godfather“. Instead of him Sacheen Littlefeather appeared in traditional Apache regalia and proclaimed that Brando would not accept the prize as protest against the bad treatment of the Natives by the film industry.
After Wounded Knee was over many AIM activists and helpers were indicted and many of them convicted. Marlon Brando as an observer took part in the trials to support the accused leaders of AIM publicly, among them Dennis Banks and Russel Means.
Even though the occupation was subdued, even though the FBI prevailed in the end, „Wounded Knee was the greatest event in the history of Native America in the twentieth century. It was our shining hour, and I am proud I have been part of it,“ said Dennis Banks in his memoires. The matter was observed around the globe and marks the beginning of slow changes for Indigenous people.
Besides his dedication for AIM Dennis Banks appeared in little roles in three films, the last one, „Older than America“/“American Evil“ by Cree director Georgina Lightning. The film deals with the impact the boarding schools had on young Native children – something he went through himself. Besides that, Dennis Banks was a close friend of Floyd Red Crow Westerman.
In 2012 I had the honor to meet Dennis Banks and talk to him at the Indian Inuit Film Festival in Stuttgart, Germany. I had him sign his biography „Ojibwa Warrior“, which I can strongly recommend. He appeared to me as a modest but impressive personality.
Report by Monika Fitzner, One Spirit Deutschland e. V.
„Ojibwa Warrior“, Dennis Banks, Richard Erdoes
„Where White Men Fear to Tread: The Autobiography of Russell Means“, Russell Means und Marvin Wolf
„Lakota Woman“, Mary Crow Dog, Richard Erdoes
„Crow Dog: Four Generations of Sioux Medicine Men“ Leonard C. Dog, Richard Erdoes
„A good day to die“, the Biography of Dennis Banks, 2012
„Older than America“ / „American Evil“, 2008
„Lakota Woman, Siege at Wounded Knee“, 1994