American Indian Movement Co-Founder Dennis Banks Dies at 80

Banks was one of the leaders of the Wounded Knee occupation in 1973.

Dennis Banks, a groundbreaking Chippewa activist and a founder of the American Indian Movement (AIM) who helped lead the group’s takeover of Wounded Knee, South Dakota in 1973, died on 29 October 2017. He was 80.

Banks fought for recognition of Native American rights, leading protests and demanding improvements on reservations that had long been neglected, earning the support of Hollywood liberals such as Marlon Brando and Jane Fonda.

The group’s website reprinted a statement from his family announcing his passing:

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 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.

The statement was signed, “The children and grandchildren of Nowacumig,” using Banks’ name as part of the Ojibwe and Turtle Clan.

On 27 February 1973, Banks and Russell Means were among the leaders in a group that joined members of the Oglala Lakota tribe to take over Wounded Knee in an effort to force the removal of Dick Wilson as the chair of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The armed occupation by 200 Native Americans lasted until 8 May 1973, and resulted in the deaths of an Oglala Lakota tribe member, Buddy Lamont, and a Cherokee Nation member. A federal marshal was shot and paralyzed during the occupation.

Banks and Means were subsequently charged with conspiracy and assault, though those were later dismissed. However, Banks was convicted of rioting and assault that same year in connection with a separate protest in Custer, South Dakota. California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) granted amnesty to Banks and initially refused to extradite him. After leaving the state and receiving sanctuary from the Onondaga Nation in New York state, Banks served an 18-month prison sentence in South Dakota.

Five years after the Wounded Knee occupation, Banks founded the Longest Walk, a five-month march from California to Washington, D.C. In an interview published in July 2016, he told the National Museum of the American Indian that it was a response to anti-Native American legislation:

I thought of the Long Walk of the Navajos and the Trail of Tears, and how people were forcibly removed from their Indigenous land. I thought, “We know this country, why not walk across the country and go back to Washington, D.C., with purpose?” We will think about all of our ancestors and the walks they were forced to endure while we walk across the country ourselves.

It [the Longest Walk] would be a forced walk, because Congress was trying to get out of their own commitments, agreements, and declarations by nullifying the treaties. I then proposed the idea to our Oakland Chapter and my good friend Bill Wahpepah (Sac and Fox), and the walk started to come to reality with notable support from Marlon Brando, Carlos Santana, and Tony Bennett, and of course the support from Native people across the country.

In August 2016, Banks was the vice-presidential nominee for the socialist Peace and Freedom Party and ran alongside the party’s presidential nominee, Gloria La Riva. The party appeared on the California presidential ballot, garnering 66,101 votes there.

According to his family, Banks will be buried on the Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota.

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