By Mordecai Specktor
Remembering Dennis Banks
When I started writing about American Indian issues, about 40 years ago, I began hearing stories about Dennis Banks, a co-founder of the American Indian Movement (AIM). In the aftermath of the recent police killings of young, unarmed, people of color in the Twin Cities –Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, Philip Quinn, et al. – it’s generally forgotten that AIM was organized, in 1968, as a group to monitor Minneapolis cops’ interactions with Indians on Franklin Avenue, the main drag through the urban reservation. The cops frequently brutalized Indians on the avenue and at the police station.
AIM activism moved from humble beginnings on the Avenue to the 1972 cross-country Trail of Broken Treaties and subsequent occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C.
AIM brought Native grievances to a global audience with the occupation of the tiny hamlet of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation. The 71-day siege riveted press and popular attention, as lightly armed Indians defended their positions against a paramilitary force of U.S. Marshals deputies and FBI agents. The Pentagon’s Directorate of Military Support, with officials present in civilian dress, supplied 15 armored personnel carriers, 100,000 rounds of ammunition, flares, sniper rifles and other military hardware to the troops ringing Wounded Knee.
A leader at Wounded Knee II, Dennis Banks – Nowa Cumig to the Ojibwe – went to the spirit world on Oct. 29. Wakes were held at the American Indian Center in Minneapolis; and at Federal Dam on the Leech Lake reservation, where he was born and laid to rest.
I first met Dennis in 1984. He had been a fugitive from So. Dakota justice, riot and weapons charge convictions from the 1973 Custer County Courthouse riot. First, Dennis was protected by Jerry Brown, during his first two terms as California governor. Brown refused So. Dakota’s extradition request for Banks. When a Republican was elected governor of California, Banks received sanctuary on the tiny Onandaga reservation, in New York.
After many years, Dennis decided that he wanted to be able to live and travel freely, and he arranged to turn himself in to the So. Dakota authorities. He traveled to the Twin Cities, and I met him at a home in suburban St. Paul, in September 1984. We were loaned a car, a Porsche, and I drove Dennis out to Pine Ridge. We were in the car together for about 13 hours.
There were a couple of events along the way.
Just after crossing the Missouri River, on a long uphill grade, a deer ran across the freeway. I saw it approaching on our right, and took my foot off the gas and steered hard left. The deer leaped over the hood of the low-slung sports car. Dennis approved of my reaction and said, “You saved us and you saved her.”
Later in the night after reaching the reservation, we saw a cop car parked by the side of a road. As we passed the cop did a U-turn and started fol-lowing us, as we were making an inconspicuous arrival on the rez in a late-model Porsche coupe. When the cop continued to trail us, Dennis reached into the back seat for his jacket and prepared to bolt from the car, if we were stopped. However, the cop disappeared and we arrived shortly at our destination. We later found out that the local tribal police were sympathetic to AIM, so a police stop wouldn’t have been a problem.
On the reservation there were ceremonies held for Dennis. One evening there was a meeting to discuss Dennis’ intention to give himself up the next day. I and a Star Tribune reporter were privy to the discussion, in which Russell Means argued against the plan, warning that Dennis would be assassinated in prison.
In the morning, a caravan of cars left the house on the rez and headed for the Rapid City airport. On a drive-way to the airport, the cars stopped and a throng of reporters and TV cameras converged. Dennis, flanked by his family and friends, consulted with Leon Shenandoah, leader of the Onandagas and spiritual leader of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. Then Dennis was arrested by Custer County Sheriff DeWayne Glasgow. On Oct. 8, 1984, Dennis was sentenced to three years in prison, and ended up serving about a year and a half behind bars.
I can’t say that I knew Dennis well. We did spend an intense night together traveling in the Porsche. There’s a lot more to say; but Dennis leaves a legacy of struggle for a more humane, healthy and just world. May his memory always be a blessing for his loved ones.