A fighter against oppression to his last breath

Brian Ward pays tribute to one of the leading figures of the Native American struggle.

Dennis Banks leads a protest in front of Mount RushmoreDennis Banks leads a protest in front of Mount Rushmore

DENNIS BANKS, a co-founder of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and lifelong freedom fighter for Indigenous rights, passed away on October 29 at age 80.

With the Ojibwe name of Nowa Cumig, meaning "in the Center of the Universe," Banks has been referred to as the Martin Luther King Jr. of the American Indian community for the central role he played in the struggle from the 1960s and for the next half a century.

Banks was born in 1937 on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation in Minnesota, home to the Leech Lake band of the Ojibwe. Like any Indigenous child of his era, he was a product of the disastrous and genocidal boarding school policies of the U.S. government, which ripped him away from his family's home. In his autobiography Ojibwa Warrior, he reflected on his experience at the government-run school:

I could speak some Chippewa when I arrived at Pipestone, but after nine years in that place, I forgot it because we were forbidden to speak our native languages. Our teachers only allowed us to speak English.

There, efforts to acculturate us extended even as far as our history books, which depicted Native people as murderous, mindless savages. In one of these books was a picture of a grinning Indian scalping a little blond white girl, one of those cute Shirley Temple types. I began to hate myself for being Indian, and made myself believe that I was really a white boy.

These boarding schools--whose explicit aim was to "kill the Indian and save the man," in the words of Capt. Richard Pratt--have been described as more damaging to Native Americans than any massacre. Like many Indigenous children, Banks ran away from the school and went back to the reservation.

Later, Banks joined the military and served overseas in Japan. When he came back to civilian life, as Banks later recalled, "jobs were few and far between. Still we survived mostly in the slave-labor markets of Minneapolis, Chicago and Milwaukee."

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BANKS WAS referring to the American Indian communities in urban centers, known as Red Ghettoes, where Indians had come for work if they didn't live on the extremely impoverished Indian reservations.

This migration of Natives into cities increased dramatically when the federal government started to implement what was called the "termination policy" in 1953. Congress had passed a resolution ordering that "the end of reservations and federal services and protections be completed 'as rapidly as possible,' as historian Charles Wilkinson wrote in his book Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations.

Wilkinson described how termination was viewed by Natives themselves:

Termination meant total assimilation, for some tribes now, for the others soon. Apprehension turned into fear and panic as a word of [the federal policy] spread across Indian Country. Even today, half a century later, for Indian people the word "termination" represents the third rail, shorthand for all that is extreme and confiscatory in federal Indian policy.

Yet the policy was a double-edged sword. It also brought thousands of Indians together in a concentrated urban neighborhoods and created a Pan-Indianness that hadn't existed since Tecumseh's effort to build a Pan-Indian resistance to Western expansion in the early 1800s. In his book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, Peter Matthiessen wrote about the relationship of termination to the rise of the Red Power movement:

Although much of its inspiration derived from Indian fishing-rights battles already under way in Washington and Oregon, from Six Nations land protests in Ontario and New York, and from the "Red Power" activity that had evolved out of the civil rights activism on the West Coast, AIM came into existence as a direct result of the termination relocation programs that dumped thousands of bewildered Indians into the cities. Even those who received job training found themselves faced with open racism and discrimination, "receiving the lowest wages for the dirtiest, most onerous work, and living in the worst conditions of urban blight and official neglect."

Termination led directly to an increase in incarceration of Natives for are often called "poor people's crimes." Banks was one of those who found himself in jail in the early 1960s. At the time, American Indians were only 1 percent of the population in Minnesota, but one-third of the prison population.

This is where Banks' radicalization began. As he later wrote:

I began to read about Indian history and became politicized in the process. I would read the papers and see that demonstrations about civil rights and the Vietnam War were going on all over the country. I realized that I desperately wanted to be part of a movement for Indian people, but we had no organizations.

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THIS SENTIMENT, along with anger at police violence toward American Indians, led to the founding of the American Indian Movement in 1968.

Started in Minneapolis, AIM took inspiration from the actions of organizations like the Black Panther Party--both organized self-defense patrols in city neighborhoods in an attempt to deter police brutality.

Banks spent 1969 to 1971 as part of an occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay that called for the U.S. to recognize their obligations under treaties with Native Americans and live up to them.

The Alcatraz occupation broadened the scope of AIM quickly. Banks and AIM members began to be seen as the most militant activists of the movement.

AIM was also well known for the 71-day occupation of the town of Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, as well the takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs offices in Washington, D.C. in November 1972.

Banks and AIM were subjected to the repressive FBI policy known as COINTELPRO. Under the program, the FBI actively targeted left-wing groups, especially the Black Panther Party and AIM, for harassment and infiltration. The objective was to create paranoia within the organization, adding to the intense pressure from outright violence. The head of security for AIM and one of the figures closest to Banks, Douglas Durham, was exposed as an FBI infiltrator during court hearings after Wounded Knee.

Banks and fellow AIM leader Russell Means were brought up on charges for the Wounded Knee occupation, but the charges were dropped for lack of evidence. However, the Feds did succeed in convicting Means and Banks for the part they played in mobilizing AIM to confront the violence of the FBI and racists in an earlier conflict in Custer, South Dakota.

Banks fled the arrest, and after pleas for support from the likes of Marlon Brando and Jane Fonda, he found refuge in California and later sanctuary on the Onondaga Indian Reservation in New York along the border with Canada. Banks later turned himself in and served 18 months in prison for his role in Custer.

Later in life, Banks settled back down on the Leech Lake Reservation. He stayed involved in activism--in 2010, he and other Ojibwe activists cast fishing nets "illegally" into Lake Bemidji one day before the opening of Minnesota's fishing season, invoking rights under their 1855 treaty.

He also participated in the Standing Rock protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline and even appeared on the California ballot as the vice presidential candidate for the Peace and Freedom Party in 2016.

Banks lived a long and amazing life and continued to fight for the freedom of the oppressed until his last breath. His profound impact was visible at the Standing Rock protests, which built on the struggles of AIM decades earlier. It's our job to learn the history of such struggles to arm ourselves to fight in the present. Dennis Banks, Nowa Cumig, rest in power.