Political Matters
Remembering Dennis Banks
Wednesday, December 06 2017
Written by Mordecai Specktor,
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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 following 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 driveway 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.

The politics of mining
Tuesday, November 07 2017
Written by Mordecai Specktor,
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After straddling the fence for years on the introduction of copper-nickel mining to northeastern Minnesota, Gov. Mark Dayton came down on the side of PolyMet’s open pit mine and processing project on the Iron Range.

In late October, Dayton told St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter Rachel Stassen-Berger, regarding the PolyMet proposal: “Nothing of that magnitude is risk free but I think it’s a risk worth taking and I support the project. But they still have to meet the environmental permitting requirements.”

Regarding the latter comment, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) still has to grant permits related to air and water quality before PolyMet can start digging. The permitting process also allows for review by American Indian bands and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and for public comment.

And Dayton told the Pioneer Press that he remains opposed to another sulfide mining project, the Twin Metals Minnesota mine near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. According to Dayton, the PolyMet mining project “is very different from Twin Metals. It’s a very different watershed.”

Over the past dozen or so years, I’ve written numerous columns about copper-nickel mining, relating tribal concerns about pollution from mine tailings wastewater and the general degradation of the natural environment. Several Minnesota Ojibwe bands retain hunting, fishing and gathering rights in the territories ceded in 19th century treaties with the U.S. government. There is an unresolved dispute over Minnesota’s standard for sulfate in wild rice waters, and sulfide mining threatens to make matters worse.

The temperature of the long-running controversy over the debut of sulfide mining – a different animal from the historic iron and taconite mining in the Arrowhead region – heated up in October, with a New York Times Sunday Magazine story titled “In Minnesota Two Economies Square Off: Mining vs. Wilderness.”

The story quoted Reid Carron, a prominent lawyer and environmentalist in Ely: “Resentment is the primary driver of the pro-mining crowd here – they are resentful that other people have come here and been successful while they were sitting around waiting for a big mining company. They want somebody to just give them a job so they can all drink beer with their buddies and go four-wheeling and snowmobiling with their buddies, not have to think about anything except punching a clock.”

Of course, Carron’s comments were denounced by the pro-mining proponents – and also by Minnesota environmental groups that wanted no part in vilifying the locals Up North.

Steve Morse, a former DFL state senator from Winona County, and now the executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, an umbrella organization of 60-some Minnesota environmental groups, told me that Carron’s remarks threw “fuel on the fire of the polarization… it’s really raised the tensions.”

Asked about the timing of Dayton’s public declaration of support for PolyMet, Morse commented that the governor’s statement follows on the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) approving the mining firm’s final environmental impact statement, which brings the permitting process “into its final stages. We may be seeing the permit to mine, which is really the core permit for this operation, at any time. It could be before the end of the year.”

As for Dayton making a distinction between the PolyMet mining scheme and the proposed Twin Metals Minnesota project, Morse said, “We really differ with him on that.”

The PolyMet project involves reusing “some pretty old mining infrastructure,” Morse said, during a telephone interview. “It’s an open-pit mine and they’re going to be putting the tailings, highly toxic materials, into this tailings basin that’s 50 years old, that doesn’t meet the type of standards you’d use if you built a new one… it doesn’t have a lining on the bottom, it leaks out of the bottom.”

The PolyMet mine will have a 20-year span of operation, according to the company’s website, and wastewater “will continue to be treated at the site for as long as necessary, and that which is discharged will meet Minnesota’s wild rice standards for sulfate.”

Again, the MPCA is in the process of revising the sulfate standard for wild rice waters; so nobody really knows how the issue will be resolved.

Morse pointed out that mine tailings basins have failed catastrophically, leading to pollution of rivers and streams (Google: “Mount Polley mine disaster”).

In the case of PolyMet, Morse said a “catastrophic failure” of the tailings basin, spilling toxic wastewater into the St. Louis River, could “destroy communities” downstream… “not the least of which is the Fond du Lac reservation.”

Stopping the Twin Metals mine and preserving the Boundary Waters is a worthy goal; but the PolyMet copper-nickel mine poses a serious threat to Minnesota’s water.


The Next Standing Rock
Friday, October 06 2017
Written by Mordecai Specktor,
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Enbridge Energy’s proposed replacement of its Line 3 oil pipeline is meeting popular opposition – and some nonviolent civil disobedience.

On Aug. 29, six opponents of the oil pipeline were arrested for obstructing construction.

Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) reported: “Alexander Good-Cane-Milk of the Yankton Sioux Tribe in South Dakota was among the protesters. He locked himself to a piece of heavy equipment just across the Minnesota border, south of Superior, Wis., according to his girlfriend Ta’Sina Sapa Win.

“She said Good-Cane-Milk wanted to make a sacrifice. They met while protesting the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation last year. They recently came to Minnesota to protest Line 3.”

Sapa Win told MPR: “Why did I want to come to Minnesota? Because our Ojibwe relatives helped stand for our fight against Dakota Access pipeline, and I’m going to stand with them in their fight.”

Douglas County Sheriff Tom Dalbec said that protesters had made previous incursions on the Enbridge construction site, and he warned them that they would be arrested if they trespassed again. “Less than 24 hours later, there they are, walking out on the worksites, chaining themselves to heavy equipment and what not, so we enforced the law and started arresting them,” he told MPR.

Calgary, Alberta-based Enbridge is trying to complete the Minnesota section of its 337-mile long, 36-inch diameter pipeline, which would replace the existing 282-mile, 34-inch Line 3 pipeline. The Line 3 Replacement Program, as Enbridge dubs the new pipeline, would follow the route of the old pipeline, which runs from Hardisty, Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin. The $2.9 billion U.S. portion of the Line 3 project follows the 50-year-old Line 3 route from the North Dakota-Minnesota border to Clearbrook, Minnesota, but then requires a new right-of-way from Clearbrook to Superior.

The proposed new Line 3 veers south of Clearbrook, along the eastern edge of the White Earth reservation. South of White Earth, Line 3 would turn east and run south of the Fond du Lac reservation to Superior. (The Canadian portion of the Line 3 project is budgeted at $5.3 billion.)

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) kicked off a series of public hearings on the Line 3 replacement project on Sept. 26, at North Thief River Falls, Minn. As this issue of The Circle was going to press, another hearing was scheduled Sept. 28 at the St. Paul Intercontinental Hotel. Hearings in October will take place in Grand Rapids, McGregor, Hinckley, Bemidji, Duluth, Cross Lake and St. Cloud.

Also, evidentiary hearings on the Line 3 project will take place on a number of November dates at the PUC offices in downtown St. Paul.

The PUC is expected to make a decision on the Line 3 replacement plan by April 2018.

In September, Minnesota’s Department of Commerce submitted a report to the PUC that said the Line 3 replacement is unnecessary, as is the original pipeline.

“The Department of Commerce also believes that the current six-pipeline system that Enbridge runs in Minnesota is enough to accommodate the crude that the state needs over the long term, in light of estimates that show the demand for gasoline and other fuels is unlikely to increase, the department said, adding that local refiners operated near full capacity in any case,” according to

The Department of Commerce stated that its testimony was “supplemented by an oil market analysis from an independent energy consultant and a study of potential insurance coverage issues from an insurance expert, the comprehensive 338-page testimony concludes that Enbridge has not established a need for the proposed project in Minnesota as required under state rules.”

The Commerce testimony dealt a blow to Enbridge and strengthened the position of American Indian bands, landowners and environmentalist opposed to the Line 3 replacement project.

An Aug. 31 report from the Associated Press noted that the Line 3 opponents “also include the Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion in Canada, a tribal effort against expanding oil pipeline infrastructure.”

“Our people were at Standing Rock, and all the ingredients for another Standing Rock-style stand in defense of our water are there," spokesman Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, said recently, according to AP.

The news wire report also mentioned that Kevin Hart, Assembly of First Nations regional chief for Manitoba, hinted that Line 3 opponents north of the border might travel to Minnesota, “following in the footsteps of the Dakota Access protesters.”

“Do you think our indigenous people and our allies all over North America are going to let tribal peoples in Minnesota fight this alone?” Hart said.


Indians Who Rock
Thursday, September 14 2017
Written by Mordecai Specktor,
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Indians who rocked

Here’s something uplifting and fun, unlike most of this column’s usual fare.

“Rumble,” a new documentary that opened Sept. 1 at the Lagoon Cinema in Minneapolis, explores a little known aspect of popular music: the contribution of American Indians.

The film’s subtitle is “The Indians Who Rocked the World,” and directors Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana feature interviews with a variety of American Indian musicians. I didn’t connect some of the musicians featured here with their Native roots; for example, many New Orleans-based artists, like the Neville brothers, claim Choctaw ancestry.

The film’s title comes from the Link Wray song. He was Shawnee, from North Carolina. You likely have heard Wray’s distinctive guitar sound on “Rumble” and “Apache” (he also wrote “Shawnee” and “Comanche”). A host of famous rockers, from Robbie Robertson to Iggy Pop, testify in the film to Wray’s influence on their musical direction.

The documentary lingers over certain figures. For example, there’s the late AIM leader and poet John Trudell, who hooked up with rock guitarist Jesse Ed Davis (Comanche and Kiowa) for his first words and music album, “AKA Graffiti Man.” In “Rumble,” Trudell talks about his friend Jesse Ed, who was a beloved and influential rock guitarist. Davis first gained widespread notice from his work on Taj Mahal’s “Giant Step” album. He played sessions with John Lennon, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Jackson Browne and other stars in the rock pantheon, and recorded his own albums. Davis, who battled drugs and alcohol for many years, died in 1988, at the age of 43.

“Rumble” also delves into jazz and folk music. Mildred Bailey (1900-1951), who grew up on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation in Idaho, was an influential jazz singer. In the film, the legendary Tony Bennett says that for a span of his formative years he only listened to Bailey. In 1938, Bailey had two No. 1 hits (“Please Be Kind” and “Says My Heart”), with Red Norvo and His Orchestra.

And Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree) discusses her role in the American folk revival of the ’60s, and how her activism for Native causes led to her being cast aside by the ruling titans of TV and other pop culture outlets.

“Rumble” is a very entertaining film; and it fills a gap in the history of popular music, which thus far has minimized or totally neglected the important role of American Indians.


Menace to society

I was out of the country in July and too jet-lagged to write a column for the August edition. It was good to be 5,000 miles away from this country and the nonstop catastrophe of the Trump administration for a couple of weeks. But I’m back and, like everybody, forced to confront the horrifying debacle that is U.S. politics.

In my June column, I noted that Trump professed his concern about American Indians, in a White House meeting with tribal leaders. Of course, you can’t believe everything that Donald Trump says.

When Trump’s not totally delusional, he’s a profligate liar. Clearly there’s something wrong with this guy, and we’re in peril as long as he commands the U.S. military arsenal. In August, Trump offered his “fire and fury” remarks, vis-à-vis North Korea.

His threat to start a nuclear war was mainly forgotten after the white supremacist chaos in Charlottesville, Virginia. On Aug. 12, the KKK and neo-Nazis staged their largest demonstrations in recent years, ostensibly to protest the campaign to remove a statue of Civil War general Robert E. Lee. After a series of brawls, a young neo-Nazi drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters killing Heather Heyer, and injuring a dozen other people. The driver, James A. Fields, has been charged with murder.

In response to the shocking events, Trump condemned the violence “on many sides” – suggesting an equivalence between the racists and anti-Semites and those who showed up to protest them. He later alleged that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the confrontation in Charlottesville.

And the president continues to defend those supporting monuments to Confederate leaders and the benighted cause of upholding chattel slavery in the South. “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” Trump tweeted.

With a president who threatens to destroy human life on the planet, and then supports white supremacists on the march, we’re in dangerous and uncharted waters. Trump should be impeached, or removed through provisions of the 25th Amendment. When this lunatic is out of power, we can deal with the new threat posed by President Pence.

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