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Banks: From activist to business owner

In 1973, Dennis Banks, co-founder of the American Indian Movement, led the occupation of Wounded Knee in South Dakota. Now a Leech Lake small businessman, Banks on Sunday visited with a Republican presidential contender about overburdening govern...

In 1973, Dennis Banks, co-founder of the American Indian Movement, led the occupation of Wounded Knee in South Dakota. Now a Leech Lake small businessman, Banks on Sunday visited with a Republican presidential contender about overburdening government regulations.

Banks, once the American Indian activist, now is a "naturally organic" activist, with his Dennis Banks Co. exporting wild rice and maple syrup and manufacturing blankets and powwow drums. He set up a display in the Bemidji Woolen Mills at the invitation of owner Bill Batchelder as an example of another local business with a global reach.

Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, has a "Made in America" platform to create new jobs. He came to Bemidji on Sunday to tour Bemidji Woolen Mills, which manufactures the campaign's signature sweater vest.

If Banks had enough time with the Republican presidential contender, he'd like to ask him "certainly to explore the non-enforcement of the treaties and all the problems we have with the states." States' relationships with tribes aren't consistent in such areas as fishing rights.

"AIM has been at it for more than 40 years and it's a slow, slow process" to have government recognize rights spelled out in treaties made in the 1800s, Banks told me as we waited for Santorum's arrival. The White House has been weak on setting meaningful American Indian policy, with Banks agreeing the last major legislation coming under President Richard Nixon with the Self-Determination Act in the 1970s.

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"Nixon was probably the best president for native people," Banks said. "He was the only one who gave land back. He was the only one to set in motion the Self-Determination Act. ... Native people held him in high regard."

Banks, 74, would ask Santorum, if elected, to emulate fellow Republican Nixon in working with the nation's tribes. Unfortunately, there is a lack of awareness of American Indian issues throughout Washington.

"In Pennsylvania, we don't have any Indian tribes on reservations," Santorum said. "We're one of a few states. Going back to William Penn and his charter, they settled all claims with all Indians in the state of Pennsylvania. So this is sort of a new area for me, because I've not had any relationships with any of the reservations or tribal leaders.

"I look at this as a blank slate for me to understand and develop those relationships as president," Santorum said.

Banks said he started his business after some Japanese tourists took about 60 pounds of wild rice back to Japan. Soon, Banks got an order for 10 tons of wild rice from a Japanese businessman who owns 10 restaurants. Last year he exported 12,000 pounds of wild rice to Japan, employing about 40 seasonal workers. Most harvest the rice and bring it to Banks, who operates eight boats of his own.

Today he also produces five brands of maple syrup in tapping 1,000 trees, and makes Bemidji Woolen Mills-designed blankets. He also makes the huge drums seen at powwows. "I'm tired of seeing things, even beadwork, made in China," Banks said. "I support making things here."

It doesn't come without problems, he said, mentioning his ongoing battle with the Department of Agriculture over the use of "naturally organic" on maple syrup labels. "I said that maple syrup and wild rice are both naturally organic, and I put the words 'naturally organic' on those two. ... The USDA called me on it." Banks added he had 10,000 labels printed as the USDA banned the use of "naturally organic." Banks thinks he has wooed the agency, at least to use the 10,000 labels.

While labeling the business a success, Banks said it's not large enough to provide a sustainable income.

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"You can't survive if that's your only business," he said. "I still have to go out and lecture on some campus for 3-4 days or a week. ... But sometimes I make a big sale."

Brad Swenson retired after more than three decades with the Pioneer. He was the newspaper's award-winning Opinion page and political editor. He can be reached at bswenson@paulbunyan.net .

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