Dennis Banks 1937–2017
The civil rights leader who fought for native rights
With his long raven hair and rugged, handsome features, Dennis Banks looked like a Native American leader in the mold of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. He followed their legacy of resistance, too. After co-founding the American Indian Movement in the late 1960s, the militant Chippewa led often violent demonstrations intended to highlight the U.S.’s mistreatment of indigenous people. His apparent lawlessness—including the armed 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1973—earned him a prison sentence and the wrath of many Americans, including many American Indians. But Banks raised widespread awareness of an issue that had previously received little attention. “Americans realized,” he said, “that native people are still here, that they have a moral standing, a legal standing.”
Born on the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota, Banks “traced his personal anger to his childhood,” said The Washington Post. At age 5, he was forcibly removed from his family and sent to a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school—which he described as a “concentration camp” where Indian children were “remade into white kids.” Banks joined the Air Force after school, but was discharged for going AWOL while stationed in Japan. He drifted into crime, and served two years in prison for burglary. Upon his release in 1968, Banks co-founded the American Indian Movement, said the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The group occupied Alcatraz Island in 1969 and the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C., three years later. It made its “biggest mark” with the takeover of Wounded Knee—the site of an 1890 massacre of 350 Lakota by U.S. troops. Some 200 armed protesters faced off against federal agents; two tribal members were killed and a federal agent left paralyzed in the ensuing violence.
Banks escaped charges because of prosecutorial misconduct, but was convicted in 1975 over a separate demonstration, said The New York Times. “Facing up to 15 years in prison, he jumped bail and fled to California,” where Gov. Jerry Brown granted him asylum. Banks gave himself up in 1984 and served 14 months in prison. On his release, he wound down his activism and became a drug addiction and alcoholism counselor. But he remained proud of his efforts. “We were the prophets, the messengers, the fire starters,” he said. “Wounded Knee awakened not only the conscience of all Native Americans, but also of white Americans nationwide.”