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UPDATED: Dennis Banks, American Indian activist, AIM and Wounded Knee figure, dies

Dennis Banks (Native News Online) 1 / 2
Dennis Banks (left) discusses locally harvested American Indian products with then-U.S. Presidential candidate Rick Santorum during Santorum's visit to Bemidji in February 2012. (Pioneer file photo)2 / 2

BEMIDJI -- A prominent American Indian activist passed away Sunday.

Dennis Banks -- a Leech Lake band member whose Ojibwe name means “in the center of the universe” -- co-founded the American Indian Movement in the late ’60s and earned a reputation as a fierce and sometimes-violent proponent of American Indian rights and causes. He was 80.

Banks and other movement members occupied Alcatraz Island, which they argued was rightfully American Indian property under an 1868 treaty. He organized a “Trail of Broken Treaties” caravan to Washington, D.C., that ended with an occupation of the Department of the Interior’s headquarters and an agreement from the government to review its commitments under decades-old agreements. He protested in Custer, South Dakota after an American Indian man was killed there but his attacker was only charged with manslaughter. And Banks lead a weeks-long standoff with federal agents at Wounded Knee -- where dozens and dozens of Lakota men, women and children had been gunned down 80 years prior -- demanding that the Oglala Sioux tribal leader be removed amid corruption allegations.

“Dennis always stood up for Native American rights,” Leech Lake Tribal Chairman Faron Jackson, Sr., who ran a leg of a spirit run with Banks last spring, told the Pioneer.

“Not just for Leech Lake band members but for native tribes throughout the U.S.”

But Banks’ activism took milder and broader forms, too. The movement was formed to address American Indian poverty in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Anton Treuer, a professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University, said, and a lot of Banks’ work was in community development rather than out-and-out protests. Banks and Clyde Bellecourt, another movement founder who spoke at the university’s American Indian Resource Center last spring, started a housing project and founded the Heart of the Earth Survival School in the Twin Cities. At the school, students learned Ojibwe and Lakota and courses were centered on American Indian culture and preserving skills like hunting and fishing.

And Banks’ movement petitioned the United Nations to acknowledge the sovereignty of American Indian nations and include them in that body. The U.N. didn’t go that far, but it issued a formal declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples, a document that has since been adopted at BSU.

Banks’ sustained advocacy, Treuer said, also prompted hundreds of sports teams to change their mascots from stereotypical American Indian symbols and likenesses.

“He never stopped being a fire-in-the-belly activist,” Treuer said.

In 2010, Leech Lake and White Earth band members cast nets in Lake Bemidji before the annual fishing opener, claiming that an 1855 treaty gave them the right to do so even if Minnesota law didn’t. DNR officials motored onto the lake and confiscated anglers’ nets and equipment.

“It will not deter us,” Banks told a crowd on the lakefront. “Our rights are ancestral and we’ll exercise our rights as long as we live. We’re going to fish, and we’re going to fish right here.”

Banks had been grappling with health problems for months, and his family announced his passing in a late-Sunday Facebook post:

“Our father Dennis J. Banks started his journey to the spirit world at 10:10 pm on October 29, 2017.

“As he took his last breaths, Minoh (Banks) sang him four songs for his journey. All the family who were present prayed over him and said our individual goodbyes. Then we proudly sang him the AIM song as his final send off.

"Our father will be laid to rest in his home community of Leech Lake, MN. Presiding over traditional services will be Terry Nelson. We welcome all who would like to pay respects. As soon as arrangements are finalized, we will post details.

"Still Humbly Yours,

The children and grandchildren of Nowacumig”

Wake and funeral services are scheduled Wednesday, Nov. 1, at Minneapolis’ American Indian Center, and on Thursday-Friday, Nov. 2-3 at Banks’ Federal Dam, Minn., home, and burial will be on Saturday, Nov. 4, at the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig Cemetery on the Leech Lake Reservation.

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education (mostly K-12) and American Indian affairs for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He's from Minneapolis, earned a degree from the College of St. Benedict - St. John's University in 2009, and worked at the Perham Focus near Detroit Lakes and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis before heading to the Pioneer.

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