Native American activist Dennis Banks dies at age 80
In a 2010 photo, American Indian activist Dennis Banks waits to board a canoe to spread a net on Lake Bemidji during an American Indian treaty rights protest. | Chris Polydoroff / Pioneer Press via AP

Dennis Banks, who helped found the American Indian Movement (AIM) and engaged in uprisings against the U.S. government, including the armed occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973, died at age 80, his family announced Oct. 30.

True to the name of his autobiography, entitled Ojibwe Warrior, Banks was a tireless fighter for American Indian issues, causes, and concerns. Banks became one of the most renowned American Indian leaders of the last century.

“I want to be remembered as somebody who stood up when it was time to stand up. Nothing more. I tell my children when I get before the Great Spirit all I want to be able to say is I did my very best,” Banks stated during “A Conversation with Dennis Banks” at Grand Valley State University in November 2009.

Banks’ Ojibwe name was Nowa Cumig, meaning “in the center of the universe.” He was taken from his family home at the age of five and sent miles away to an American Indian boarding school. The boarding school experience never left Banks as he championed American Indian causes later in life.

By 1953, he joined the Air Force and was sent to Japan for three years of service. After his stint in the military, Banks came home to Minnesota where he spent the next years of his life between the Leech Lake Indian Reservation and the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Having struggled to find a job and needing to feed his family, Banks was arrested for stealing food for his family and was sent to prison where he heard the complaints of many fellow American Indian prisoners who faced police brutality both in and out of prison.

He co-founded the American Indian Movement (AIM) with Clyde Bellecourt, George Mitchell, and Vernon Bellecourt in 1968 as a result of police abuse against American Indians in the Minneapolis–St. Paul area. Banks asked Russell Means, who was the director of the Cleveland Indian Center when AIM was formed, to become part of the movement.

Since its inception, AIM always used treaties as a basis of its appeal for justice in the U.S. for American Indians. Treaties are a legal means most other people of color do not have. Banks and other AIM leaders understood this and utilized these documents to their advantage.

American Indian Movement leader Dennis Banks, left, reads an offer from the U.S. government seeking to end the Native American occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973. Looking on is AIM leader Carter Camp. | Jim Mone / AP

He was a leader of the group’s takeover of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 1973. Banks and other AIM leaders chose Wounded Knee because of its symbolic significance in history as the site where the U.S. 7th Cavalry massacred some 300 men, women, and children four days after Christmas in 1890.

Military helicopters and jets flew overhead, dozens of tanks rolled in, and more than 130,000 rounds of ammunition were fired into occupied Wounded Knee during the 1973 occupation. Most nights were filled with gunfire from federal marshals and National Guard members. The occupiers held federal agents at bay for 71 days; two Native Americans died and several agents were injured amid the frequent gunfire.

Banks and fellow AIM leader Russell Means (who died in 2012) faced charges stemming from the Wounded Knee occupation, but a judge threw out the case. However, Banks spent 18 months in prison in the 1980s after being convicted for rioting and assault for a protest in Custer, South Dakota, earlier in 1973. He avoided prosecution on those charges for several years because California Gov. Jerry Brown refused to extradite him, and the Onondaga Nation in New York gave him sanctuary.

Banks was already an activist before the Wounded Knee occupation. He participated in the 1969-71 occupation by Native Americans of Alcatraz Island, in San Francisco Bay, demanding that the former federal prison be returned to Native people under the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1868. He also helped lead a takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs offices in Washington, D.C., in 1972 as part of a protest called “The Trail of Broken Treaties.”

In 1978, after hearing of pending legislation in the U.S. Congress that would greatly diminish treaty rights and the removal of traditional Navajo citizens from the Big Mountain region of Arizona, Banks and others organized a cross-country 3,000-mile walk from Alcatraz Island to Washington, D.C. called the “Longest Walk,” one of several over the years.

In 2010, Banks joined several other Ojibwe from the Leech Lake and White Earth bands who tested their rights under an 1855 treaty by setting out nets illegally on Lake Bemidji a day before Minnesota’s fishing season opener.

Dennis Banks went to the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota to join last year’s protests of the Dakota Access oil pipeline. On the day before the camps were closed in February 2017, with the sounds of heavy equipment in the background, Banks told the assembled crowd they can be proud that they showed the world their resistance against big oil.

“Thirty years from now, your young grandchildren will ask you about Standing Rock. You can tell them with pride, you were here. We were here being who we are,” Banks stated.

“We should let it be known: Make no mistake America, we are going to be on your back,” Banks said as he was concluding his remarks to the water protectors.

Banks died Sunday night, Oct. 29, at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, surrounded by about 30 people, including siblings, children, and grandchildren, said daughter Tashina Banks Rama. He had heart surgery earlier this month and was in high spirits until pneumonia he had contracted after the surgery took a turn for the worse, she said.

Banks’ family wrote on his Facebook page that as he took his last breaths, son Minoh Banks sang him four songs for his journey.

“All the family who were present prayed over him and said our individual goodbyes,” the family said. “Then we proudly sang him the AIM song as his final send off.” The AIM song is intertribal, deliberately not language-specific, a song used by members of AIM who belonged to various tribes and spoke different languages.

Banks lived near the town of Federal Dam on the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota and was a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, one of the many bands of Ojibwe, also known as the Chippewa or Anishinaabe, living in North America.

Treuer said Banks is remembered in the Native American community not only for his work in the rise of AIM, but for his efforts on the local level, such as focusing attention on racial disparities in the justice system, housing for Native Americans, treaty rights, and teaching traditional ways to young people.

Rama said the family plans to hold wakes Thursday and Friday on Leech Lake Reservation, and Banks will be buried on the reservation in a traditional ceremony Saturday.

He is survived by 20 children and more than 100 grandchildren.

This article features content from the Associated Press and Native News Online. Barbara Russum also contributed.