Dennis Banks, Native American Civil Rights Warrior, Has Died

He rose to national attention after spearheading a 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota

Dennis Banks
American Indian Movement leader Dennis Banks Jim West / Alamy Stock Photo

Dennis Banks, the fiery and divisive activist who co-founded the American Indian Movement, has died at the age of 80.

His daughter, Tashina Banks Rama, tells Robert D. McFadden of the New York Times that Banks died at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota from complications of pneumonia, following successful open-heart surgery.

All the family who were present prayed over him and said our individual goodbyes,” Banks’ family said in a statement. “Then we proudly sang him the AIM song as his final send off.”

In the 1960s and '70s, Banks led a number of often violent demonstrations against the mistreatment of Native Americans at the hands of the federal government. He rose to national fame in 1973 after spearheading an armed occupation of the town of Wounded Knee in South Dakota, where at least 150 American Indians had been massacred by U.S. troops in 1890 (some historians place the number of dead closer to 300). The protestors, who sought to oust corrupt tribal leaders and call attention to the U.S. government’s violation of its treaties with Native American tribes, held Wounded Knee for 71 days.

"It was aimed at trying to ... bring about major change in America regarding policies, attitude, and the behavior of white America," Banks said of the occupation in a 1998 interview with NPR.

Banks was born on the Leech Lake Reservation of Minnesota’s Ojibwa Tribe in 1937. He was raised by his grandparents and grew up in poverty; Keith Coffman of Reuters reports that Banks’ childhood home did not have running water or electricity. At the age of five, Banks was taken from his grandparents and sent to a series of government-run schools for Native American children, which actively sought to strip young students of their indigenous culture. Banks reportedly ran away frequently, finally returning to Leech Lake at the age of 17.

In 1954, Banks enlisted in the Air Force. After his discharge, he was arrested for stealing food to help feed his family, he writes in his 2004 memoir Ojibwa Warrior. While in prison, Banks founded AIM with other incarcerated Native Americans. The organization hoped to combat both the oppression and dire living conditions of Native American groups. Within two years, AIM said it had 25,000 members.

Upon his release from prison, Banks helped instigate a number of aggressive demonstrations to accomplish AIM’s goals. With the support of his followers, he occupied Alcatraz Island, the site of the now-defunct federal prison, seized a replica of the Mayflower in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs for nearly a week. But it was the Wounded Knee protests that transformed Banks into a leading figure of Native American civil rights activism.

Hundreds of U.S. marshals, F.B.I. agents and other law-enforcement officers descended on the town to contend with the 200 protestors, who were led by Banks and the Oglala Sioux activist Russell Means. A 10-week gun battle left two native activists dead, a federal agent paralyzed, and hundreds of people injured.

When it was over, Banks and Means were slapped with felony assault and riot charges. Both men were acquitted, but Banks was convicted on similar charges for a separate protest that had taken place in Custer, South Dakota, earlier in 1973. He served 14 months in prison.

Banks turned to a more gentle form of protest in the late 1970s, founding the Longest Walk, a five-month march between California and Washington, D.C. In a 2016 interview with the National Museum of the American Indian, Banks said that the walk “was a departure from the actions at Wounded Knee. This time we would pledge to walk across with our pipes, and it would be a great spiritual walk. A spiritual movement brought us to better understanding about our spiritual beliefs and who we are as a cultural people.”

In the 1990s, Banks founded a wild rice and maple syrup company. But even in his later years, Banks remained passionate about the causes that galvanized him during his youth.

"If we follow the white man, we're going to drown with the white man,” Banks told NPR in 2001, according to Domonoske. “Why can't we follow our own dreams? And that's what I'm doing. I'm trying to follow what I want to do as my dream.” 

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