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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 11/4/17

The Legacy of Dennis Banks

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Noted civil rights activist Dennis J. Banks, who co-founded the American Indian Movement and championed indigenous rights in the face of continuing oppression of Native Americans, died on Oct. 29 in his native Minnesota. He was 80 years old.

Banks was born dirt poor on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation of the Ojibwa Tribe in northern Minnesota. He grew up impoverished in a home with no electricity, running water or indoor plumbing, not uncommon for American Indians. Like many native children, at the age of five, Banks was forced to go to a boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which was meant to "civilize" the children. Banks later compared the schools to "concentration camps" for the cruel and inhumane way they treated the native children.

Banks moved to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area in 1966, after he was discharged from the U.S. military. There he was sent to prison for stealing groceries and other necessities to feed his family, he said.

While in prison, Banks founded the American Indian Movement, or AIM, with other jailed Native Americans. AIM, as it came to be known, became one of the most important and influential activist groups at the height of the civil rights movement.

AIM garnered national attention during the 1973 armed standoff between Native American activists and federal authorities at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

The 72-day militant protest against tribal leaders accused them and the entire U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs of widespread corruption. Wounded Knee had been the site of an 1890 massacre of more than 300 Oglala Lakota men, women and children by U.S. Cavalry troops.

The Feds charged Banks and another AIM leader, Russell Means, with conspiracy and other offenses related to the siege. The charges were ultimately dismissed.

I spoke with Russell's brother and AIM co-founder Bill Means, following Banks' passing.

Dennis Bernstein: We are so sorry to hear about the passing of Dennis J. Banks. Maybe you could help us understand Dennis' place in the world of resistance and standing our ground.

Bill Means: I was thinking back to when I first met Dennis. It was as a soldier coming back from Vietnam. My brother and my mother were at a conference in San Francisco and invited me to come. I was amazed that people in the Indian community were getting together to organize behind various issues such as treaty rights, fighting the extractive industries, and exposing health conditions on the reservations.

We took a day trip to Alcatraz, which was being occupied at the time, and that is where I met Dennis Banks. Alcatraz was one of the sparks that lit the fire of Indian resistance and indigenous movements throughout the world. The Alcatraz event was started by Bay Area institutions, including students at San Francisco State and Lehman Brightman's organization, United Native Americans. The Bay Area is well known for very creative movements aimed at self-determination.

At the time, I couldn't wait to get out of this uniform and become a part of this movement. From the time of my discharge six months later, the only thing on my mind was how I could get with the AIM people, finish my college education, and help organize what was going on with various actions in the Dakotas and Minnesota.

Dennis Bernstein: Talk about Wounded Knee and how you brought history up to date in the 1970's.

Bill Means: AIM had been leading the fight against racism in South Dakota, including the death of a young man named Raymond Yellow Thunder in the city of Gordon, Nebraska. There has always been a very tense relationship between Indians and these border towns that surround reservations. The mistreatment of Indians was not unlike what was happening in the South with African Americans.

As the Civil Rights Movement grew, so did the Indian Rights Movement. We were fighting for our civil rights from the perspective of treaty rights. Unlike any other minority in the country, we had a political and legal relationship with the United States government which was on the level of nation-to-nation rather than state rights. The states had always trampled on our rights. That is how they formed, by taking Indian land.

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Dennis J Bernstein is the host and executive producer of Flashpoints, a daily news magazine broadcast on Pacifica Radio. He is an award-winning investigative reporter, essayist and poet. His articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Nation, and (more...)

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