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A walking tribute to an American Indian icon: Family, others walk to remember Dennis Banks

A group of family and friends marches along a roadway recently in honor of the late Dennis Banks, a prominent American Indian activist who died in October at the age of 80. Submitted photo1 / 2
Dennis Banks2 / 2

CASS LAKE—About a dozen people relaxed under some trees between the Palace Casino and adjacent ball fields and powwow grounds late Tuesday afternoon, their journey ended for the day.

They were about half of a group that's on a days-long mission to walk from Dennis Banks' grave at Battle Point Cemetery to his nearby home at Sugar Point, making a clockwise loop around Leech Lake on the way. Born on the Leech Lake reservation, Banks was a prominent American Indian activist who passed away last October, leaving behind a sometimes-violent legacy that includes founding the American Indian Movement; a takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs offices in Washington, D.C.; a tense occupation of Wounded Knee, S.D.; and a series of country-spanning "Longest Walks" to call attention to treaty rights, tribal sovereignty, and more.

The trek this week in Banks' honor, though, was designed to be apolitical, said Minoh Banks, one of Dennis Banks' sons.

"We're just having a humble memorial walk," Minoh Banks said. "Just remembering my dad and remembering all the things that he did for native people and all the walks that he did across the world."

The group traveled from the cemetery in Battle Point to Kego Lake, then to Onigum and on to Walker, and, Tuesday, to Cass Lake, staying at tribal community centers or family homes along the way, Banks said. Group members planned to rent a few rooms at the casino before heading for Bena and beyond on Wednesday.

After a while each day, Banks said, some of the walkers hop in cars to finish their journey, and the rest would run portions of the remainder like a relay. They numbered about 25 in all.

One was Leonard Seabolt, who said he met Dennis Banks in 2011 on the third of Banks' Longest Walks, which went from La Jolla, Calif., to Washington, D.C., and aimed to call attention to the high rates of diabetes among American Indians.

"It's an epidemic everywhere, but Indians get it about three to four times higher than the regular population," Seabolt, who is Muscogee and Cherokee, said. "So we were carrying the message that people can reverse their diabetes, Type 2 diabetes, by exercise and diet."

Another was Mama Murai, one several people on the walk who knew Dennis Banks through Enshou Yamada, a buddhist monk Banks met doing cultural exchange work, including spiritual walks, in Japan.

"Dennis Banks touched our hearts very deeply," Murai said.

Minoh Banks said the walks his father pioneered recalled a longstanding American Indian tradition.

"That's how we would carry the messages or medicines or anything that needed to be brought from one village to another," he explained. "So it was about bringing that message by the old way and bringing it into the modern times."

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education and health for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He is a Minneapolis native and a 2009 graduate of St. John's University. Before moving to Bemidji, Bowen covered education, local politics, crime, and everything in between for the Perham Focus in Perham, Minnesota, and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis.

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