Native American activist Dennis Banks, who died Oct. 29 at 80, leaves behind a legacy that includes a reenergized movement that reminded America of its original sins of genocide and deceit, as Dennis J Bernstein reports.
By Dennis J Bernstein
Noted civil rights activist Dennis J. Banks, who co-founded the American Indian Movement and championed indigenous rights in the face of continuing oppression of Native Americans, died on Oct. 29 in his native Minnesota. He was 80 years old.
Banks was born dirt poor on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation of the Ojibwa Tribe in northern Minnesota. He grew up impoverished in a home with no electricity, running water or indoor plumbing, not uncommon for American Indians. Like many native children, at the age of five, Banks was forced to go to a boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which was meant to “civilize” the children. Banks later compared the schools to “concentration camps” for the cruel and inhumane way they treated the native children.
Banks moved to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area in 1966, after he was discharged from the U.S. military. There he was sent to prison for stealing groceries and other necessities to feed his family, he said.
While in prison, Banks founded the American Indian Movement, or AIM, with other jailed Native Americans. AIM, as it came to be known, became one of the most important and influential activist groups at the height of the civil rights movement.
AIM garnered national attention during the 1973 armed standoff between Native American activists and federal authorities at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
The 72-day militant protest against tribal leaders accused them and the entire U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs of widespread corruption. Wounded Knee had been the site of an 1890 massacre of more than 300 Oglala Lakota men, women and children by U.S. Cavalry troops.
The Feds charged Banks and another AIM leader, Russell Means, with conspiracy and other offenses related to the siege. The charges were ultimately dismissed.
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