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Native-American Studies

A Biography of American Indian Icon Dennis Banks

In his 2005 autobiography, American Indian activist Dennis Banks openly gives thanks to the American Indian Movement (AIM) which in his humble opinion “will always be strong because it is a spiritual movement.” Banks also offers a viewpoint that in many ways sums up why he has spent decades in the struggle to better the lives of his people–“Right now this earth, our Mother, is in distress. She needs our help. Can we–all of us–respond? I don’t know, but I am convinced that if we don’t respond, we will be in peril and our future will lay in question” (2005, p. 362).

Thus, with this quote, it is clear that Dennis Banks sees a connection between helping his fellow American Indians and attempting to save planet Earth from destruction at the hands of human beings. In other words, the American Indian has long been in “distress” and in order to help the current plight of the American Indian, “all of us” must respond. But as Banks points out, the lack of response will place them in further peril which could lead to their eventual destruction.

As an American Indian icon, Dennis Banks is now recognized as one of the most  influential Native American activists. As the co-founder of the American Indian Movement, Banks served as the leader in the 1973 “standoff between the FBI and the U.S. Army at Wounded Knee, South Dakota” (Dennis Banks: Biography, Life, and Career Facts, 2012) which in effect gave rise to his status as a highly controversial figure in the on-going struggle to provide Native American Indians with a decent life and the rights which they are entitled to as American citizens.

Born on April 12, 1937 at the Leach Lake Ojibway (Anishinabe) Indian Reservation in the state of Minnesota, Dennis Banks was taught by his grandparents to respect the American Indian way of life and all of the native traditions that dated back hundreds of years to the days when the Ojibway Indians freely occupied the northern portion of the United States. Much like many Ojibway children, Banks attended a local boarding school in the early 1940’s and in 1954 after graduating from a public high school enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and served in Japan. After his stint in the Air Force, Banks returned to Minnesota and quickly found himself in trouble after stealing groceries to feed his growing family of eight children. As Banks relates, “I had a miserable, minimum-wage job that could not support us, so I stole food to put on our table (Banks & Erdoes, 2004, p. 60).

Banks ended up in prison and while there learned about Dr. Martin Luther King and Civil Rights Movement. Banks was so inspired by Dr. King that he spent hours in the prison library reading up on past American treaties with the Native Indians as well as the U.S. Constitution. In 1968, Banks was released from prison and in the city of Minneapolis helped to create the American Indian Movement whose overall goal was to “bring Native Americans together to resist police brutality” and to fight for their rights as American citizens. At this time, Banks seems to have blossomed as an activist which soon brought him into the media spotlight as a controversial organizer for Native American Indian rights (Dennis Banks: Biography, Life, and Career Facts, 2012).

In 1973, Banks and the members of AIM occupied the historical site of Wounded Knee in South Dakota as a way of protesting how American Indians were being treated by the U.S. federal government and to commemorate the 1890 massacre between federal troops and the Sioux Nation in which more than 150 Indians were killed. During this incident which lasted more than seventy days and nights, Banks and his AIM members were “surrounded by several hundred well-armed federal agents and troops” with gunfights between the two parties which resulted in the deaths of two AIM members.

At about the same time, Banks led another protest over the killing of Raymond Yellow Thunder in Gordon, Nebraska (Dennis Banks: Biography, Life, and Career Facts, 2012).

Following this confrontation at Wounded Knee, the Pine Ridge reservation on which Banks lived “was plunged into more than two years of near-warfare between AIM and its adversaries in the tribal government.” Dozens of reservationists were killed with Banks being charged as an accessory to murder. Although the federal prosecution rate was very low in regards to the killings on the reservation, Banks decided to flee and ended up in California where then-governor Jerry Brown “refused to extradite him to South Dakota, in part because Attorney General William Janklow. . . had pledged to kill AIM members” (Dennis Banks: Biography, Life, and Career Facts, 2012).

During his time in California, Banks graduated from Davis University with an associate’s degree in art; he also “served as chancellor of Deganawidah-Quetzalcoatl University,” where he helped to develop programs for Native American Indian students. In 1978, Banks helped to organize what came to be called the Longest Walk from Alcatraz Island to Washington, D.C. in “protest of legislation in Congress to abrogate” long-held American Indian treaties (Dennis Banks: Biography, Life, and Career Facts, 2012).

In 1994, Banks decided to take his chances and returned to South Dakota to face potential federal charges related to the incident at Pine Ridge in the early 1970’s. As might be expected, Banks was convicted and spent eighteen months in prison. After his release, Banks dedicated his life to teaching and practicing traditional Ojibway and Native American Indian lifestyles and beliefs and became a drug counselor. More recently, Banks wrote his autobiography Ojibwa warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American Indian Movement (2005) which was preceded by another autobiography called Sacred Soul in 1988. Today, Dennis Banks remains active in his efforts to help all Native American Indians to obtain their rights as American citizens and to guarantee that traditional Indian ways and beliefs remain as part of America’s historical heritage.

Works Cited

Banks, D., and Erdoes, R. (2005). Ojibwa warrior: Dennis Banks and the rise of the  American Indian movement. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

Dennis Banks: Biography, life, and career facts. (2012). Retrieved from http://pagerankstudio.com/Blog/2011/01/dennis-banks-biography-life-and-career-facts