American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Banks, Dennis

From the 1960s to the present, Dennis Banks has been a prominent Native American activist, educator, and advocate for Indian rights. He is most famous for his activities as cofounder of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and leader in the historic standoff between the FBI and AIM at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. While he has attracted great political controversy, he is widely loved by traditional indigenous elders and Native rights supporters from around the world.

Born in 1937 on the Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota, Banks's Ojibwa grandparents raised him to have traditional cultural values. He recalled what happened when he returned home as a boy and announced that he had killed a porcupine, his first success as a hunter. When asked to show his grandparents the porcupine, he confessed that he left it deep in the forest. To teach him an important lesson in life—not to kill any living creature indiscriminately—he was instructed to go back into the dark forest and recover the porcupine. He then was taught the proper way to pray over the animal, asking for forgiveness and promising to use every part of the animal for a good purpose. He cleaned it, cooked the meat, and saved all the quills to be used as decorations for quillwork clothing and birchbark boxes. The experience profoundly changed his worldview at an early age.

His life was seriously disrupted when U.S. government officials took him from his family. They forced him to attend a government boarding school, where he was subjected to a repressive assimilation program. At the age of seventeen, Banks enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and shipped off to Japan. He fell in love with the Japanese people and married a Japanese woman.

When banks left the Air Force, he was shipped back to the United States and found himself in the Indian slums of Minneapolis, Minnesota. He was arrested and sent to prison for stealing groceries to feed his growing family. Here he decided to educate himself, becoming immersed in the study of federal Indian affairs. He learned of the existence of more than 300 broken treaties. Reading in the U.S. Constitution (Article VI) that "treaties are to be judged the supreme law of the land," Banks discovered a legal basis for the defense of Indian rights. Upon his release, he and a number of other Indians, including Russell Means and Vernon and Clyde Bellecourt, founded the American Indian Movement.

In 1972, Banks helped organize a march on Washington, D.C., called the Trail of Broken Treaties. The group arrived at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and demanded that past broken treaties be honored. When a positive response was not received, AIM entered and occupied the BIA building. They raised their AIM flag, barricaded the doors, and called the media. President Richard M. Nixon called for additional snipers to protect the White House and asked the FBI to intervene. After the Iroquois chiefs arrived, a settlement was negotiated. Banks and the AIM members left the BIA building and caravanned in parade of old "rez cars" back to the Lakota reservation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. The Lakota medicine men, Frank Fools Crow and Leonard Crow Dog, conducted ceremonies.

On February 27, 1973, Dennis Banks and 200 people, including AIM members and their Lakota supporters, found themselves surrounded by FBI agents, U.S. marshals, BIA police officers, and the notorious goon squad of the Pine Ridge tribal council. They had been invited onto the reservation by tribal elders for protection against the terrorism fostered by tribal president Richard "Dick" Wilson. The confrontation quickly turned into an armed standoff. The FBI brought in superior firepower and armored personnel carriers designed for wartime combat. Banks called the Iroquois chiefs, the Muskogee medicine man Philip Deere, and other tribal leaders for support. The armed siege made national news, as TV cameras lined up to record the "last battle of the Indian wars." The standoff lasted seventy-one days, ending, after the deaths of two Indian men, with the signing of a "peace pact" that soon was added to the list of broken treaties.

Dennis Banks was given sanctuary from federal prosecution by California Governor Jerry Brown. Having earned an associates of arts degree at Davis University, Banks went on to serve as chancellor of Deganawidah-Quetzalcoatl (D-Q) University, developing educational programs while organizing in 1978 a new and larger march from Alcatraz Island to Washington, D.C, called the Longest Walk. Modeled after Martin Luther King's civil-rights marches, the event's purpose, ultimately successful, was to halt proposed legislation to abrogate Indian treaties.

Taking refuge on the Onondaga nation after Governor Brown left office, Banks eventually surrendered to authorities and served eighteen months in a South Dakota prison. After his release, he worked as a substance abuse counselor on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Banks went on to work successfully for strict legislation to protect Indian graves against desecration. He published his autobiography, Sacred Soul, in 1988.

Dennis Banks led the ultimately unsuccessful 1996 drive for executive clemency for the political prisoner, Leonard Peltier. He has performed in movies and has released CDs of original and traditional music. He continues to lead sacred runs around the world in support of various Native causes, and he remains active as a substance abuse counselor, lecturer, and elder.

Gregory Schaaf

Further Reading
Banks, Dennis, and Richard Erdoes. 2004. Ojibwa Warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American Indian Movement. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Deloria, Vine, Jr. [1974] 1985. Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties. Austin: University of Texas Press.

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