Photographer, activist Dick Bancroft left behind a spirit of adventure
ST. PAUL—Dick Bancroft, the photographer who spent decades documenting the American Indian Movement, never stopped being curious about the world.
On Monday, July 16, Bancroft didn't want to miss his death.
Early that morning, while lying in his hospice bed at his house in Sunfish Lake, he used his cellphone to call his wife, Debbie, and summon her downstairs.
"He was the most adventuresome person I have ever met," Debbie Bancroft said. "He wanted to be awake and see where the next adventure was going to lead. He was very conscious that he wanted to have his loved ones nearby, and he didn't want to be asleep because he was curious about what the spiritual world was going to be like for him. He called at 2 a.m., and he died at 2:30 a.m."
Bancroft, who would have turned 91 on Saturday, died Monday from complications related to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Polar explorer Ann Bancroft said her father instilled in his five children a quest "to leave a mark for good."
"He exposed us to a bigger world with his curiosity — sometimes without leaving Mendota Heights — through magazines and books and people who came through the door," she said. "All five kids are adventuresome, and it's exhibited in lots of different ways. That love was passed on."
In 1969, Bancroft was serving on the health and welfare planning committee of the United Way in St. Paul when AIM and the American Indian Center asked the agency for $25,000 to fund operations. Bancroft was asked to chair a small committee to research the proposal.
"We wanted to find out who the people were and what they were after," Bancroft said in an interview with FotoEvidence magazine. "Well, the hard part was to find Indians. They were the invisible ones, the invisible minority."
After the groups got the money, Bancroft asked Pat Bellanger, one of the founders of AIM, what he could do to help.
"She said, 'What do you do?'" said Carrie Bancroft, one of Bancroft's three daughters. "When he told her that he took pictures, she said, 'Well, then, take pictures.'"
Those pictures — "in black-and-white and color, in close-ups and clusters, the faces of adults and children — showed the defiance and the promise, the occupations and the accomplishments" of AIM, Bancroft wrote in an artist's statement for an exhibit at St. Paul Academy.
Bancroft said he came to respect AIM and developed lifelong friendships because of it. "My exposure to Native American people has had a profound effect on my values and quality of life, and for this I am eternally grateful," he said.
Before Bancroft became the "quote-unquote official" photographer of the movement, "nobody was taking pictures of what the Native Americans were doing," Debbie Bancroft said. "As Dick used to say, 'Their tradition is oral. Why would anybody want pictures?' Pat recognized that it would be very, very useful for them to have pictures of what was happening."
A book of Bancroft's photos, titled "We Are Still Here: A Photographic History of the American Indian Movement," was published in 2013 by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.
Photographer Keri Pickett said social justice and human rights flowed through Bancroft's "being and his life."
"He was a friend and a supporter and a mentor," she said. "He was such an important person in the (Indian) community and in the world. His involvement helped me be strong and to be sure of what I was doing — that photography and photographing what was happening was important."
Bancroft, who grew up in St. Paul, said he was inspired by LIFE magazine. "I was 9 years old in 1936 when LIFE first came out, and my parents bought a subscription," he said in the FotoEvidence interview. "The first copy came to our house on a Friday, and from that point on, I found that I could learn more by looking at pictures than I could by reading text and remembering it. ... I would come home from school for lunch and, on Fridays, I would plop down with the new issue of LIFE and consume it."
After graduating from St. Paul Academy in 1945, he was drafted into the Marines for a year. He later attended the University of Minnesota. He married Debbie in 1953.
The Bancrofts settled in Mendota Heights, and Dick Bancroft took a job working as an insurance salesman. He also served on the boards of the Hallie Q. Brown House and Neighborhood House in St. Paul. Debbie Bancroft said friends at Hallie Q. Brown inspired him to "want to work with the black community."
"He wanted to be involved with the civil rights movement, actually, and I wouldn't let him go down to Selma," Debbie Bancroft said. "I said, 'You've got a family of young children. You can't do that.' It really bothered him. He was an activist, and he just wanted to be a part of whatever peace and social justice movement was happening."
Debbie Bancroft's father and grandfather died in the late 1960s, she said, leaving enough money for the young family to move to Kenya for two years. The couple volunteered with the Presbyterian Church of East Africa.
It was in Africa that Bancroft honed his documentary photo skills, she said.
"The subject matter was so fabulous," she said. "He was doing a lot of pictures of people and photographing people living in the squatters' villages, urban poor people, trying not to be intrusive. It was not the usual touristy pictures. He wasn't photographing Africans in traditional dress in their villages."
Carrie Bancroft, who lives in Bogota, Colombia, said her father was "empathetic to people whom he perceived as not having a voice."
"His photography, in particular, but his approach to people in general, was to try and bridge gaps, bridge communities together and help people understand," she said.
Ann Bancroft said her father "influenced the paths" of his children's lives and "the way in which we try and lead our lives — looking out for injustices, paying attention, eyes wide open."
Bancroft was preceded in death by his son, Bill, who died in 2004.
In addition to Ann, Carrie and Debbie, he is survived by a son, Hunter, and a daughter, Sarah, and six grandchildren.
Funeral service are pending.