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Dennis Banks

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Dennis Banks
Banks in 2013
Born(1937-04-12)April 12, 1937
DiedOctober 29, 2017(2017-10-29) (aged 80)
NationalityOjibwe, American
Occupation(s)Teacher, lecturer, activist, author

Dennis Banks (April 12, 1937, in Ojibwe – October 29, 2017) was a Native American activist, teacher, and author. He was a longtime leader of the American Indian Movement, which he co-founded in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1968 to represent urban Indians. He was a pre-eminent spokesman for Native Americans. His protests won government concessions and created national attention and sympathy for the oppression and deplorable endemic social and economic conditions for Native Americans.[2]

Early life


Born on Leech Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota in 1937, Dennis Banks was also known as Nowa Cumig (Naawakamig in the Ojibwe Double Vowel System).

Banks's mother abandoned him to be raised by grandparents. But, he was separated from that family, too, when he was taken at the age of 5 to live at a federal Indian boarding school, run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (now the Bureau of Indian Education). Its goals were to "civilize" and educate Native American children in English and mainstream culture, in effect, to assimilate them. Children were prohibited to speak their native languages or practice their traditions. Vocational training was emphasized. Banks ran away often, returning to live with family at Leech Lake. He attended Pipestone Indian Boarding School in Minnesota, which closed in 1953. It had been founded in 1892 according to the federal model established at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.[citation needed]

When he was 17, Banks joined the US Air Force and was stationed in Japan. He was fascinated to be in a place where Europeans were the minority. During this period, in 1956 he was ordered to shoot to kill anti-base protesters during the Sunagawa Struggle. The events had a profound influence on him.[3][4] After he went AWOL, he was dishonorably discharged from the military. He returned to Minnesota, where he participated in a burglary, for which he was convicted, serving two and a half years in prison.[5][6]

"What I saw at Sunagawa really changed direction in my life."

— Dennis Banks, A Good Day to Die[7]



Work with AIM


Banks was a champion of Native pride, who defied authority and spoke for the Nation's oldest minority. In 1968, Banks co-founded the American Indian Movement (AIM) in Minneapolis.[8] AIM sought to ensure and to protect the civil rights of Native Americans living in urban areas[9] and to protest the treatment of Native Americans and the nation's history of injustices against its indigenous peoples.[2] Banks felt that a point had been reached in history, where Native Americans could not tolerate any longer the abuse and Native American mothers could not tolerate any longer the mistreatment that goes on on reservations.[10]

Banks participated in the 1969–1971 Occupation of Alcatraz, initiated by Indian students from San Francisco of the Red Power movement. It was intended to highlight Native American issues and promote Indian sovereignty on their own lands. Banks and Oglala Lakota Russel Means were by the mid-1970s the best known Native Americans since Lakota war leaders Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, who led the attack that defeated the forces of General Custer at The Battle of Little Big Horn, also known as The Battle of the Greasy Grass.[10]

Banks also traveled to Germany, where he, together with AIM co-founder Vernon Bellecourt, set up an AIM office in West Berlin and also traveled behind the Iron Curtain to meet with East German AIM supporters.[11]

Trail of Broken Treaties


In 1972, he assisted in the organization of AIM's "Trail of Broken Treaties", a caravan of numerous activist groups across the United States to Washington, D.C., to call attention to the plight of Native Americans. The caravan members anticipated meeting with United States Congress leaders about related issues, but government officials, most notably Harrison Loesch, the Interior Department Assistant Secretary responsible for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), refused to meet with delegates.[12] Banks helped lead a takeover of the BIA offices.[13] Activists seized and occupied the headquarters of the Department of Interior.; in the process some vandalized the offices of the BIA. Many valuable Indian land deeds were destroyed or lost during the occupation.[citation needed] Over 9000 tons of documents were removed by AIM members and hidden by the Hatteras Tuscarora and Lumbee in Robeson County, N.C. The FBI would find the documents and many were returned to the BIA.

Some thirty years later, Banks returned to Robeson County, North Carolina. where he reconnected with Hatteras Tuscarora/Lumbee Attorney and Activist JoJo Brooks Shifflett. Banks and Shifflett remained in a committed relationship during the last years of his life.[citation needed]

Wounded Knee incident


Wounded Knee was the scene of the last major conflict of the so-called American Indian Wars, in which 350 Lakota men, women, and children were massacred by United States Army in 1890. It was the deadliest mass-shooting in US history.[2] In 1973, Banks returned to Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, when the local Lakota civil rights organization asked for help in dealing with law enforcement authorities in nearby border towns. Residents of Pine Ridge believed the police had failed to prosecute the murder of a young Lakota man. Under Banks' leadership, AIM led a protest in Custer, South Dakota in 1973 against judicial proceedings that had resulted in the reduction of charges of a white man to a second degree offense for murdering a Native American.[citation needed]

AIM became involved in the political faction wanting to oust Richard Wilson, the elected chairman of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Opponents believed that he was acting autocratically, including recruiting a private police force. A failure of an impeachment proceeding against him led to a large protest. Banks and other AIM activists occupied Wounded Knee. After a siege of 71 days by federal armed law enforcement, which received national attention, the occupation was ended. A U.S. marshal was shot and paralyzed in March. A Cherokee and an Oglala Lakota were fatally shot in April 1973 by federal agents. Civil rights activist Ray Robinson, who had joined the protesters, disappeared during the occupation and is believed to have been murdered.[1]

Thirty resident families returned to the village to find that their homes and businesses had been destroyed by the federal agents. The town was never rebuilt. Banks was the principal negotiator and leader of the Wounded Knee occupation. Subsequent investigation of Wilson found questionable accounting practices, and Wilson had sold off tens of thousands of acres of the reservation to mining companies. As a result of involvement in Custer and Wounded Knee, Banks and 300 others were arrested by the federal government and faced trial. He was acquitted of the Wounded Knee charges, but was convicted of incitement to riot and assault stemming from the earlier confrontation at Custer.[citation needed]

Aquash murder and trial


Refusing the prison term, Banks jumped bail and worked with Anna Mae Pictou Aquash in the American Indian Movement. After the Wounded Knee Occupation—where COINTELPRO FBI agents sieged the occupation, cut off electricity, water and food supplies to Wounded Knee, when it was still winter in South Dakota, and prohibited the entry of the media; and the US government tried starving out the occupants, AIM activists smuggled food and medical supplies in past roadblocks "set up by Dick Wilson and tacitly supported by the US government"— there were many suspicious events surrounding murders of AIM activists and their subsequent investigations or lack thereof. Deaths of AIM activists went uninvestigated, even though there was an abundance of FBI agents on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation at the time. For instance, Annie Mae Aquash was an activist who had been present at Wounded Knee and was framed by the FBI as a spy for the government. It was later revealed that most of this campaign to discredit her can be traced to Douglass Durham, an FBI informant. Aquash was found dead near Highway 73 on February 24, 1976. FBI ruled her cause of death was exposure, suggesting alcohol had been involved, even though there was none in her bloodstream. Dissatisfied with this finding, an exhumation was requested by OSCRO, which found that Aquash had been shot in the back of her head at close range, after being beaten severely in the face with many of her teeth missing from the beating.[14] After disappearing from Denver in late 1975, Aquash was found murdered in February 1976 by a rancher near the Pine Ridge Reservation. She had been shot in the back of the head execution style, and her murder was unsolved for decades.[15]

Banks was given amnesty in California by then-Governor Jerry Brown, who refused to extradite him to South Dakota to face the charges related to activities in the 1973 Custer protests. He also received financial support from actor and AIM sympathizer Marlon Brando.[16]

In January 2003, a federal grand jury indicted Arlo Looking Cloud and John Graham in the murder of Aquash. Since 2004, they have been convicted by federal and state juries; each is serving a life sentence.

In 2008, Vine Richard "Dick" Marshall was indicted by a federal grand jury for aiding and abetting the murder of Aquash; he was alleged to have provided John Graham with a gun. He was acquitted of the charge. In 1975, he had been serving as one of Banks' bodyguards. Aquash was brought to Marshall's house on the Pine Ridge Reservation in December 1975 before being taken to the site of her murder.[17] Authorities continue to investigate the Aquash murder. In 2014, The New York Times Magazine spoke to Banks for an in-depth feature about the murders of Aquash and Ray Robinson.[1]

Education and career


During his time in California from 1976 to 1983, Banks earned an associate's degree from the University of California, Davis. He taught at the recently opened Native American Studies department at Contra Costa College[18] and at Deganawidah Quetzalcoatl University (DQU), a Native American-controlled institute of alternative higher learning, where he became the first American Indian chancellor.[5] In 1978, he established the first spiritual run from Davis to Los Angeles, which is now an annual event. In the spring of 1979, he taught at Stanford University.[citation needed]

After Governor Brown left office, in 1984 Banks received sanctuary from the Onondaga Nation in upstate New York. While on their reservation in New York, Banks organized the Great Jim Thorpe Longest Run from New York to Los Angeles; the goal was to gain restoration of the gold medals which Thorpe had won at the 1912 Olympics for the Thorpe family.[citation needed]

In 1985, Banks left Onondaga to surrender to federal law enforcement officials in South Dakota. He served 18 months in prison related to the 1973 charges for the Custer riot. After his release, he worked as a drug and alcohol counselor on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. During 1987, grave robbers in Uniontown, Kentucky were halted in their digging for artifacts in American Indian grave sites.[19] Banks organized the reburial ceremonies. His activities resulted in the states of Kentucky and Indiana passing strict legislation against grave desecration.[20]

In 2006, Banks led Sacred Run 2006,[21] a spiritual run from San Francisco's Alcatraz Island to Washington, D.C. The runners followed the ancient Native American tradition of bringing a message of "Land, Life and Peace" from village to village. They traveled around 100 miles every day and entered Washington, D.C., on Earth Day, April 22, 2006. Along the way, they took a southern route in solidarity with those who were rebuilding after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Major events were held in Albuquerque, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Mississippi, a civil rights site; Knoxville, and Washington, D.C.[citation needed]

Since "The Longest Walk" in 1978, Sacred Runs have developed as an international movement. Sacred Run 2006 had runners from Japan, Australia, Ireland, and Canada, as well as many from the United States. In 2008, the International "The Longest Walk 2" followed the Sacred Run 2006 route, as well as the original route of 1978 walk. Dennis Banks delivered a "Manifesto for Change" to Representative John Conyers (D-MI).

Banks was a member of the board of trustees for Leech Lake Tribal College, a public, two-year college located just outside Cass Lake, Minnesota.[5]



In August 2016, Banks received the vice presidential nomination of the Peace and Freedom Party, a party with ballot access in California, which identified itself as socialist and feminist.[22][9] He appeared on the California ballot with presidential nominee Gloria La Riva.[23]

Marriage and family


While deployed in Japan, Banks married a woman named Machiko. After they had been together for two years, Machiko had a daughter, Michiko. Banks left Japan after being court martialed by the Air Force for being AWOL (Absent Without Official Leave). He never saw Machiko or Michiko again. He returned to Japan several times, but Machiko had remarried and Michiko was at university in Northern Japan.[24]

According to birth records from Minnesota, Banks had one child with wife Elladean (Ellie) Banks: Red Elk (born June 7, 1970), and seven children with wife Jeanette Banks: Janice (born March 2, 1962), Darla (born February 18, 1963), fraternal twins Deanna Jane and Dennis James (born April 20, 1964), Tatanka Wanbli (born September 7, 1971).

At Pine Ridge Reservation, Banks met Darlene Kamook Nichols, who was 17 and still in high school. He was 32. After she graduated, they started seeing each other and married. They had three daughters and a son together: Tokala, Tiopa, Tasina and son Tacanunpa Banks.[24] They later divorced. (Kamook Nichols remarried and is now known as Darlene Ecoffey.)

In Salt Lake City he had a daughter, named Arrow, with Angie Begay (Navajo).[24]

In 1989, Banks met a photographer named Alice Lambert. She gave birth to Minoh Biqwad on October 10, 1992.

Banks has several stepchildren: Roland (Kawliga) Blanchard, Beverly Baribeau, Glenda Roberts, Denise Banks, Pearl Blanchard, and Danielle Louise Dickey. (Dickey was murdered in 2007 on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota). He has a granddaughter named Migizi from Minneapolis, Minnesota.[citation needed]

Banks had 20 children and more than 100 grandchildren.[5] Mr. Banks was in a committed relationship with Lumbee Attorney and Native Rights Activist, JoJo Brooks Shifflett in the later years of his life and at the time of his death.



Banks died at the age of 80 of complications from pneumonia following heart surgery on October 29, 2017, in Rochester, Minnesota.[10]







The musical release Still Strong (1993) features Banks' original songs, as well as traditional Native American songs. He also participated as a musician on such albums as Peter Gabriel's Les Musiques du Monde and Peter Matthiessen's No Boundaries.[citation needed]

In 2012, Banks joined forces with Golden Globe and Grammy Award-winning artist Kitarō in celebration of the Earth on the CD Let Mother Earth Speak. The project contains a message of international peace, intertwined with stories and life lessons from Banks, and featuring the music of Kitaro. The album was released on September 11, 2012, on Domo Records.[citation needed]


  • Banks, Dennis and Richard Erdoes (2004). Ojibwa Warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American Indian Movement, Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-3580-8


  1. ^ a b c Eric Konigsberg, "Who Killed Anna Mae?", The New York Times Magazine, April 25, 2014
  2. ^ a b c McFadden, Robert D. (October 30, 2017). "Dennis Banks, American Indian Civil Rights Leader, Dies at 80". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved February 28, 2024.
  3. ^ Stock, Catherine McNicol (2020). "Table of Contents: Nuclear Country". www.upenn.edu. Archived from the original on August 13, 2020. Retrieved March 9, 2021.
  4. ^ Wright, Dustin (October 2017). "From Tokyo to Wounded Knee: Two Afterlives of the Sunagawa Struggle". The Sixties. 10 (2): 133–149. doi:10.1080/17541328.2017.1390648. S2CID 148700838 – via researchgate.net.
  5. ^ a b c d McFadden, Robert D. (October 30, 2017). "Dennis Banks, American Indian Civil Rights Leader, Dies at 80 (Published 2017)". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved March 9, 2021.
  6. ^ Wilkinson, Francis (December 28, 2017). "Dennis Banks Led a Native-American Revolution". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved March 9, 2021.
  7. ^ "A Good Day To Die | Journeyman Pictures". www.journeyman.tv. Retrieved March 9, 2021.
  8. '^ n-activist-dennis-banks/454089543/ "American Indian Movement founder Dennis Banks dies at 80". Star Tribune. October 30, 2017. Retrieved October 30, 2017.
  9. ^ a b "Dennis Banks, Dennis Banks, Native American Activist And Wounded Knee Occupier, Dies At 80". NPR. October 30, 2017. Retrieved October 30, 2017.
  10. ^ a b c McFadden, Robert D. (October 30, 2017). "Dennis Banks, American Indian Civil Rights Leader, Dies at 80". The New York Times. Retrieved October 30, 2017.
  11. ^ "Kindred by Choice | H. Glenn Penny". University of North Carolina Press. pp. 191, 193. Retrieved March 9, 2024.
  12. ^ Banks, Dennis and Erdoes, Richard: Ojibwa Wizard: Dennis Banks And The Rise Of The American Indian Movement, p. 134.
  13. ^ "American Indigenous activist Dennis Banks dead at 80 | CBC News". CBC. Associated Press. October 30, 2017. Retrieved December 31, 2020.
  14. ^ Deborah Kades, "Native Hero", Wisconsin Academy Review (2005); accessed October 30, 2017.
  15. ^ "On Feb. 24, 1976, a rancher in South Dakota was installing a fence on land situated along the edge of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation when he spotted a body at the bottom of a 30-foot embankment. [...] The back of her head was matted with blood, and there was a single bullet wound at the base of her skull. She had been shot at close range." Eric Konigsberg: Who Killed Anna Mae?, nytimes.com, April 25, 2014
  16. ^ "In Los Angeles, Marlon Brando, an AIM sympathizer, lent Banks a motor home and $10,000 for food and gas." Eric Konigsberg: Who Killed Anna Mae?, nytimes.com, April 25, 2014
  17. ^ "U.S. indicts Richard Marshall in Aquash murder case", News from Indian Country, August 26, 2008 Archived October 23, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  18. ^ "Dennis Banks Arrested" (PDF). Akwesasne Notes. 8 (Early Spring 1976) (1): 15.
  19. ^ "KENTUCKY: Assault on Indian Graves". Time. February 1, 1988. ISSN 0040-781X. Retrieved March 9, 2021.
  20. ^ Curnutte, Mark. "American Indian Movement co-founder Dennis Banks, former NKY resident, dies at 80". The Enquirer. Retrieved March 9, 2021.
  21. ^ SACRED RUN 2006 – San Francisco to Washington, D. C., 2/10/06–4/22/06 (Earth Day)
  22. ^ Winger, Richard (August 13, 2016). "Peace & Freedom Party Nominates Gloria LaRiva for President". Ballot Access News. Retrieved August 14, 2016.
  23. ^ "Meet Dennis Banks - Gloria La Riva for President 2016 — Vote Socialist!". Gloria La Riva for President. Retrieved August 14, 2016.
  24. ^ a b c Dennis Banks and Richard Erdoes, Ojibwa Warrior, University of Oklahoma Press, 2005