The tireless Dennis Banks. Facebook photo
Dennis Banks, founder of the American Indian Movement and Native American leader, teacher, thinker, activist and author, has died at age 80 from complications after open-heart surgery. An Ojibwa born on Leech Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota, Banks was most well-known as the fiery activist who, with AIM co-founder Russel Means, led 1973's uprising and stand-off at Wounded Knee. But his legacy from that action endured: He became a thoughtful, articulate defender of native and human rights who spent decades working to preserve indigenous culture, fight drug use and domestic violence, and promote wellness on reservations across the country. "We were the prophets, the messengers, the fire starters,” Banks wrote in his 2005 biography Ojibwa Warrior. “Wounded Knee awakened not only the conscience of all Native Americans, but also of white Americans nationwide.”
After growing up at a boarding school and serving in the military in Japan, Banks - Nowa Cumig in his native language - helped found the AIM in 1968 to protest police treatment of Native Americans. He led AIM in the occupation of Alcatraz, the takeover of D.C.'s Bureau of Indian Affairs dubbed "The Trail of Broken Treaties," and then the armed occupation of Wounded Knee in South Dakota, the site of an 1890 massacre of Indians by federal troops, that drew hundreds of protesters. They stayed locked in a dramatic standoff with federal agents for 71 days; it ended with two tribal members killed, an agent wounded, and Banks and Means tried in federal court. In 1974, a judge threw out the charges.
When Congress introduced legislation in the late 1970s hurtful to native communities, Banks created The Longest Walk, a spiritual 5,400-mile march/run/relay to bring protesters to D.C. "with purpose," raise awareness of domestic violence and mental health issues facing native communities, and pay tribute to the Trail of Tears and other calamities of their ancestors. Banks argued the walk "not only beautifies the struggle but strengthens (it) - it helps us understand that this is what our people did." Later, Banks also launched a successful maple syrup and wild rice business - he opposed genetic engineering - held canoe races to nurture pride in native traditions, led caravans to reservations to discuss domestic violence, and protested the Dakota Access pipeline. Until the end, he was seen as "a leader in our community," said Winona LaDuke. "Dennis Banks was everything to us."
Banks died Sunday at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester after developing pneumonia following open-heart surgery. His death was movingly reported in a post on his Facebook page signed by his 19 children and many grandchildren, who wrote that he "started his journey to the spirit world at 10:10 p.m...As he took his last breaths, Minoh sang him four songs for his journey. The family prayed over him and said our individual goodbyes. Then we proudly sang him the AIM song as his final send off." In a recent interview, Banks predicted "the U.S. government is going to die (in) its own quagmire of hatred and discrimination (and) brutality." He went on, "Native people will still be here and the good people of America will be here too...Someday the American people will come to their senses and boot out their government and start over again. And the Creator will cleanse this earth." May it be so, and may Banks rest in power.
Banks and Means at Standing Rock. UPI photo
One of the Longest Walks. Facebook photo