Political Matters – August 2018

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Dick Bancroft walks on

Dick Bancroft, a photographer who had many friends in the Native community, passed on to the spirit world on July 16. He had been suffering for some time from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and died just a few days before his 91st birthday.

I met Dick in the summer of 1979, at the first Black Hills Survival Gathering near Rapid City, So. Dakota. We soon teamed up – I wrote and he took pictures – on stories about the contemporary American Indian struggle for land, resources and treaty rights.

One of our first road trips took place in 1980. We drove (in Dick’s Porsche) to the federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, where I interviewed American Indian Movement (AIM) activist Leonard Peltier. We did another prison interview with Peltier – who was convicted for the 1975 killing of two FBI agents at Oglala on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation – in 1985, at the Springfield, Missouri, federal prison.

In 1983, I met David Sohappy, the late fishing rights activist from the Wanapum band of the Yakama Nation. After his conviction in the federal “Salmonscam” sting operation on the Columbia River, Sohappy was brought to Sandstone prison in Minnesota, where Dick and I visited him.

On another occasion, Dick and I schlepped to Sandstone for an interview with Roy Bourgeois, a Catholic priest who was convicted of illegally entering Fort Benning and urging Salvadoran soldiers in training to refrain from killing civilians in their homeland.
Dick and I also attended some of AIM’s international conferences, including the 1982 International Indian Treaty Conference on the Tohono O’odham Nation, about an hour west of Tucson. We camped in a desert wash in scorching heat, amid scorpions, tarantulas and diamondback rattlesnakes – and had a pretty good time.

Dick was a delightful traveling companion. He enjoyed meeting all kinds of people, and our road trips usually involved stops at odd roadside attractions and small-town cafés that offered local color and tasty food.

Richard M. “Dick” Bancroft, a St. Paul native, had a varied career as an insurance salesman; missionary to urban squatters in Nairobi, Kenya, in the 1960s. He was drawn to social activism, and served on the boards of Hallie Q. Brown House and Neighborhood House, both in St. Paul.

Starting around 1970, Dick started photographing AIM actions, such as the takeover of the Naval Air Station and, in 1972, the Trail of Broken Treaties, AIM’s cross-country caravan, when it reached Washington, D.C. He became the de facto AIM photographer.

Dick’s photos were widely distributed, although he often did not receive proper attribution for his work. However, he was not overly concerned about marketing his photography; it was from his heart, a contribution to the struggles of indigenous peoples around the world.
I’ll also mention that Dick called me in 1984, during my brief stint as an editor at the Utne Reader, and asked if I’d like to drive Dennis Banks back to So. Dakota. Banks, a co-founder of AIM, had decided to give himself up to the authorities, after he was convicted of riot and assault charges from the Feb. 6, 1973, Custer County courthouse riot. I went out to the Bancrofts’ home in Sunfish Lake, met Dennis, and then we got into Dick’s Porsche and I drove him out to the Pine Ridge reservation. Dennis died last October at the age of 80.

In 2013, Minnesota Historical Society Press published a collection of Dick’s photographs, We Are Still Here: A Photographic History of the American Indian Movement, with text by Laura Waterman Wittstock, and an introduction by Rigoberto Menchú Tum (K’iche’ Maya from Guatemala), winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize.

Before the onset of his health problems, Dick enjoyed cutting firewood in the woods by his home. He also made portions of his land available to Hmong gardeners, and for a sweat lodge.

A great benefit of working with Dick and becoming his friend, was getting to know his family: his wife, Debbie, and their accomplished and amazing children, daughters, Ann Bancroft, the renowned Polar explorer, Carrie and Sarah; and sons, Bill (who died in 2004) and Hunter.

And my family also became fond of the Bancrofts. One winter many years ago, I took my sons Max and Jonas along to Sunfish Lake. I was helping Debbie set up an iMac computer at a desk by the kitchen, when I happened to look out the window and see my little sons on a toboggan being towed – at a very fast clip – behind Dick’s pickup truck across the frozen lake. Fortunately, Dick brought them through safely.

The Bancroft family is planning a public memorial later this year. May Dick’s memory always be a blessing.