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Dennis J. Banks
Native American activist, organizer, and protest leader Dennis Banks (Nowacumig) helped found the influential American Indian Movement (AIM). Under his passionate leadership in the late 1960s and early 1970s, AIM championed Native American self-sufficiency, traditions, and values. However, its demand for federal recognition of century-old treaty rights led to violent clashes with authorities, and the federal bureau of investigation (FBI) branded AIM an extremist group. In turn, illegal actions by the FBI led to Banks's acquittal on charges stemming from his role in AIM's occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973. While heightening national awareness of Native American issues, Banks faced prosecution several times. He spent nearly a decade as a criminal fugitive, receiving a form of political asylum in California from then governor Jerry Brown before surrendering in 1984 and serving a shortened prison term. Since 1978, Banks has led a Native American spiritual organization in Kentucky called Sacred Run.
Banks was born April 12, 1937, in Leech Lake, Minnesota. His difficult early life began during one of many periods of upheaval in federal policy regarding Native Americans. Like many Anishinabe Ojibwa, or Chippewa, children, he was sent at the age of five to schools operated by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), and he spent part of his childhood being shuttled between boarding schools in North and South Dakota. The BIA managed such schools in accordance with a landmark change in federal policy known as the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (25 U.S.C.A. § 461 et seq.). Under the terms of this so-called new deal for Indians—a plan for tribal government that many traditional Native Americans had resisted—schools were to have been improved over those in previous decades that sought to Christianize or "civilize" their pupils. But the schools still deemphasized Native American culture by forbidding the speaking of the Ojibwa language, Lakota. Thus, like many of his generation, Banks lost his native tongue.
At the age of 19, Banks joined the U.S. Air Force and served in Japan. Discharged in the late 1950s, he returned to Minnesota, where he faced the same problems as young Native American men continued to face in the 1990s and the 2000s: alienation from his culture, unemployment, poverty, alcoholism, and crime. "I was heading down a road that was filled with wine, whiskey and booze," Banks later recalled. "Then I landed in prison."In 1966, he was convicted for burglarizing a grocery store and began serving thirty-one months of a three-and-a-half-year sentence in Stillwater State Penitentiary, in Minnesota. In prison, Banks met fellow convict Clyde Bellecourt, also an Ojibwa. The two men and others founded AIM in July 1968 with several goals in mind. They wanted to address the problems that beset their people and find solutions to basic needs such as housing and employment. To help Native Americans live successfully off reservations, they would start socalled survival schools. But fundamentally, they wanted to preserve their vanishing culture. AIM's emblem was an upside-down U.S. flag, what Banks called the international distress signal for people in trouble.
When the first AIM chapter started in Minneapolis in 1968, Banks would often use a police radio to guide him to the scene when officers
were arresting Native Americans. Intending to prevent police abuses, he was frequently arrested on charges of interference. This kind of tough, streetwise advocacy helped spread the movement, making Banks, Bellecourt, and another AIM leader, Russell Means, heroes to many of their generation.
Over the next four years, the movement spread to all 50 states and to Canada. The organization's political message had widespread appeal for Native Americans who felt betrayed by the federal government's Indian Reorganization Act. Not only was this new deal perceived as no deal, but many believed that it opened the way for massive federal land grabs of Indian territory on which valuable minerals were located. Banks and his fellow leaders decided to reclaim former Indian territory, announcing that they would symbolically "retake the country from west to east" like the "wagon train in reverse."
The militancy of their claims was soon demonstrated. In its first act of protest, on November 4, 1969, AIM seized the abandoned federal prison on Alcatraz Island, in San Francisco Bay, California. Two hundred activists claimed the island as free Indian land and demanded that an educational and cultural center be established there. In ironic press statements, they announced the establishment of a Bureau of Caucasian Affairs and offered to pay the U.S. government $24, in mockery of the 1626 purchase of Manhattan Island from Indians by Dutch settlers. The occupation, which lasted nineteen months, stirred up considerable publicity. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a joint resolution directing President Richard M. Nixon to negotiate with the activists, but his administration's offer to build a park on the island was laughed off. U.s. marshals ultimately arrested the activists still on the island in June 1971.
In April 1971, Banks led several AIM members in a week-long takeover of the Fort Snelling Military Base, in St. Paul. Seizing an abandoned building, the group announced that it intended to start an Indian survival school there. Senator Walter F. Mondale agreed to negotiate with Banks, but before he could, a federal Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) unit arrested the protesters. Around the United States, other occupations of government property took place as AIM chapters demonstrated against broken treaties. As a white backlash against the protests began, several Indians were beaten or shot. Charges of manslaughter brought against white attackers usually ended in acquittal, inflaming the Indian movement. It maintained that little or no help was forthcoming from the BIA or the FBI.
In response, car caravans converged on Washington, D.C., on November 2, 1972, in a protest rally dubbed the Trail of Broken Treaties. AIM presented a 20-point proposal demanding that the government revamp the BIA, recognize Indian sovereignty, restore the power of Indians to negotiate treaties, and create a review board to study treaty violations. A group of 400 protesters seized the BIA building; clashed with riot squads; and, renaming the facility the Native American Embassy, ransacked files that Banks said contained evidence of federal mistreatment of Indians. Banks told reporters, "We are trying to bring about some meaningful change for the Indian community. If this is the only action that will bring change, then you can count on demonstrations like this 365 days a year." On November 6, the Nixon White House agreed to negotiate. After two days, Banks's followers departed in return for the appointment of a special panel to investigate conditions on Indian reservations. But within a week after the takeover, federal funding was cut off for three of AIM's survival schools.
In early 1973, a turning point occurred in Banks's life and the direction of AIM. On February 6, he led an AIM protest 200 strong in Custer, South Dakota, after a white man accused of killing an Indian in a barroom brawl was charged with involuntary manslaughter. Banks met with local officials, but when the slain man's mother, Sarah Bad Heart Bull, tried to enter the courthouse, she and other Native Americans were beaten by the police. A riot ensued, in which AIM members set fire to police cars and the CHAMBER OF COMMERCE office. For his role in the Custer incident, Banks was charged with arson, burglary, and malicious damage to a public building, all of which he denied. But his radicalization was complete."We had reached a point in history where we could not tolerate the abuse any longer," Banks later explained, "where mothers could not tolerate the mistreatment that goes on on the reservations any longer, they could not see another Indian youngster die."
Three weeks later, Banks, Means, and other AIM members took over the town of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. For Native Americans, the town has a bitter place in history: it is the site where, in 1890, 300 unarmed Sioux men, women, and children were massacred by the Seventh Cavalry of the U.S. Army. Banks and Means hoped to invoke this symbolism by seizing the town by armed force and issuing new demands. They wanted the federal government to investigate the BIA and to address treaty violations, and they denounced recent tribal elections as corrupt manipulations by white U.S. citizens. As national attention focused on the growing army of some three hundred FBI agents and U.S. marshals, and the armored personnel carriers surrounding the militants' fortifications, gunfire was frequently exchanged. Over 71 days, while the government ordered surrender without amnesty, the town was held. "We laid down our weapons at Wounded Knee," Banks told the press from within the stronghold, recalling the 1890 massacre. "Those weapons weren't just bows and guns, but also a sense of pride."
The takeover ended on May 9, 1973. Pentagon documents later revealed that the U.S. Army had readied a vast military arsenal to clear out AIM members, including more than 170,000 rounds of ammunition, grenade launchers, explosives, gas, helicopters, and jets. In the end, however, casualties were limited: two Native Americans were killed and several wounded; three members of the government forces were wounded, including one agent who was paralyzed. As a condition of surrendering, AIM was once again promised a federal investigation of its demands, but none was forthcoming.
Banks and Means were prosecuted on ten felony counts each in a dramatic eight-month trial in St. Paul, during which federal marshals used mace on courtroom spectators. The defendants alleged that their takeover of Wounded Knee was justified by the government's violations of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie—a pact in which the Sioux Indians had been promised government protection for ending their armed resistance. But the case against Means and Banks foundered on revelations that the FBI had used illegal wiretaps and had changed documents, among other illegalities, in mounting its prosecution. On September 16, 1974, all charges were dismissed.
Although Banks acted as a negotiator during the mid-1970s, settling disputes between Native Americans and authorities, other aspects of his life soon changed for the worse. In July 1975, a South Dakota jury convicted him on charges of riot and assault with a deadly weapon for his role in the 1973 riot at the Custer County Courthouse. The conviction carried a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. Before sentencing, Banks heard prison guards say he would not last 20 minutes in the South Dakota State Penitentiary. He fled, only to be arrested by FBI agents on January 23, 1976, in northern California. A massive petition movement supported by the actors Jane Fonda and Marlon Brando appealed to Governor Brown on Banks's behalf. Brown reduced Banks's bail, refused extradition requests from South Dakota, and informed authorities there that he was protecting Banks because of sworn statements that Banks's life would be endangered if he were imprisoned. Banks lived freely in California, serving as chancellor of the two-year Indian college Deganawidah-Quetzalcoatl University, until the 1983 inauguration of Republican governor George Deukmejian ended his asylum.
Banks then took sanctuary on the Onondaga Reservation in New York. Because reservations in the state are not under federal jurisdiction, the FBI chose not to arrest him as long as he remained there.
After nine years as a fugitive, Banks gave himself up to state authorities in South Dakota in fall 1984. His request for clemency was denied, and he was sentenced to three years in prison. After his parole on December 9, 1985, he spent time on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where, through his success at persuading Honeywell and other companies to locate factories there, employment doubled. But his legal troubles continued. Banks had been charged with illegal possession of dynamite stemming from the 1975 arrest of his wife, Kamook Nichols. A lower court dismissed the charges in 1983 on the ground that Banks and three other defendants had been denied their Sixth Amendment right to a Speedy Trial, and a second federal court upheld the ruling. But on January 21, 1986, the members of the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5–4 vote, held that their rights had not been violated, because they were free without bail and not under indictment during the 90-month delay in their prosecution. Banks pleaded guilty on March 8, 1988, and received five years'probation. Also, in 1988, Banks's autobiography Sacred Soul was published.
In 1994, Banks led the four-month "Walk for Justice." The purpose of the trek from Alcatraz Island in San Francisco to Washington, D.C., was to publicize current issues regarding Native Americans.
Banks continued to serve as director of Sacred Run, an organization he founded in 1978 to address Native American spiritual concerns. Since then the Run has become an international, multicultural event that carries the message of the sacredness of life and of humankind's relationship to the earth. By 1996, Banks had led runners over 58,000 miles through the United States, Canada, Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.
Banks has had roles in movies including War Party, The Last of the Mohicans, and Thunder-heart. A musical cassette, Still Strong, featuring Banks's original work as well as traditional Native American songs, was completed in 1993 and a music video with the same name was released in 1995.
In the early 2000s Banks continued working toward the release of Leonard Peltier. Peltier, an Ojibwa whom Banks considers to be a political prisoner, was convicted in 1977 of the murder of two FBI agents during a gunfight in Oglala, North Dakota. In addition to supporting the Peltier defense and other issues concerning Native Americans, Banks traveled and lectured in the United States and abroad.
Churchill, Ward. 1988. Agents of Repression: The FBI's Secret Wars against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement. Boston: South End Press.
Dennis Banks Website.Available online at <http://members.aol.com/nowacumig/main.html> (accessed May 31, 2003).
Sayer, John William. 1997. Ghost Dancing the Law: The Wounded Knee Trials. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press.
Smith, Paul, and Robert Warrior. 1997. Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee. New York: New Press.
Weyler, Rex. 1982. Blood of the Land: The Government and Corporate War against the American Indian Movement. New York: Everest House.