Dennis Banks, 1937-2017. Photo: Renaud Hoyois

American Indian Movement leader Dennis Banks passes away at the age of 80

Dennis Banks, AIM leader, 1937-2017

Services and burial in Minnesota this week
By Kevin Abourezk

Famed American Indian Movement leader Dennis Banks died Sunday night at the age of 80 after a brief fight with pneumonia that he had acquired not long after enduring open-heart surgery, members of his family announced.

“Our father Dennis J. Banks started his journey to the spirit world at 10:10 pm on (Sunday),” the family wrote on Banks’ Facebook page. “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.”

Banks, who was from the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, led AIM alongside Russell Means and brothers Clyde and Vernon Bellecourt. The men and other AIM activists made national headlines after taking over Alcatraz Island in 1969, marching on Washington and taking over the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1972 and a year later occupying Wounded Knee, where federal agents besieged them for 71 days.

Gifted orators, Banks and Means were considered the intellectual leaders of AIM. Means died in 2012.

“He continued to stand up for Indian rights and for treaty rights,” Lenny Foster, who joined AIM in his early 20s, said of Banks. “He certainly was a very strong leader for the movement.”

Paulette Robideau, co-director of the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, said Peltier — who is serving two life sentences in a federal penitentiary in Coleman, Florida, after being convicted in 1977 of the murder of two FBI agents on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation two years before — was deeply saddened to learn of Banks’ death this week.

“He and Dennis were great friends and brothers for a long period of time,” Robideau said. “He’s saddened by the passing of all his friends, that he can’t attend their wakes. He was very sad at Dennis’s passing. He was despondent about that.”

Foster knew both Banks and Peltier, and has served for many years as a spiritual adviser to Peltier.

He said he last saw Banks when he arrived in Gallup, New Mexico, in March 2016 as part of the Longest Walk and spoke to him by phone about a month ago. The two men talked about plans for a 50th anniversary celebration for AIM’s founding to be held in summer 2018.

“He sounded like he was in good spirits, strong,” Foster said. “It was the visionary spirit of Dennis Banks that inspired me to be part of this movement.

“We may never see his kind again.”

Foster said he’ll never forget that night in 1973 when Banks called upon him to lead him in escaping the federal siege at Wounded Knee. Banks documented that night in his 2004 autobiography, Ojibwa Warrior.

* * *
Dennis Banks is seen on the left with Carter Camp, another American Indian Movement leader who passed away in 2013. Photo: Neeta Lind

Two nights before the end of the siege, they plotted their escape.

Foster was in his mid-20s. Just three years before, the Dineh man had answered the call to join the American Indian Movement, traveling to join the occupation of Alcatraz.

Banks sat across from him in the sweat lodge that night in Wounded Knee. The two men listened to the medicine man Leonard Crow Dog pray for their safe escape the next night.

“With this pipe, with this tobacco, and with this prayer, I’m going to make you invisible,” Crow Dog said.

It was no small promise.

Arrayed against the two men and the other three who planned to join them were marshals with sniper scopes and infrared night-vision, attack dogs and trip-wire flares.

Foster had stepped up right away when the call went out for volunteers to help Banks escape.

“I’ll go with Dennis. I’ll protect him with my own life,” Foster had said.

The next night, after saying goodbye to their friends, who planned to remain in the camp to be arrested, Dennis, Foster and three other men walked out of camp, headed north. Just before they left, a group of women created loud noises on the south perimeter of the Indian encampment to draw the authorities’ attention away from the men.

Foster led the way, running ahead periodically to ensure no federal marshals were in their path.

After a few near run-ins with marshals, including nearly being run over by some federal agents in a Jeep, they came upon a car they thought was occupied by Indians. As they opened the car’s door, they were shocked to find two marshals in camouflage with an AR-15 assault rifle on the seat between them.

The marshals sped off, as Banks and his men ran into some nearby woods. They managed to evade the marshals, who returned with reinforcements and dogs, but the five men got separated in the night. Banks managed to make it to a mobile home, where an Indian woman gave him shelter.

Outside the home, the marshals’ dogs approached. As they drew nearer, a a gang of mangy, hungry, mean reservation dogs attacked the agents’ well-fed dogs, forcing them to flee.

Eventually, Banks joined his family in nearby Rapid City and together they fled to Canada. Foster, meanwhile, also had escaped and made his way to Crow Dog’s home in Rosebud, South Dakota.

As he recalled that night this week, Foster teared up.

“I feel pride in getting to know a great Indian leader like Dennis Banks.”

Wake and funeral services for Banks will begin at noon Wednesday in the Minneapolis American Indian Center, 1530 E. Franklin Ave. Wake services also will take place Thursday at the Northern Lights Casino in Walker, Minnesota, and on Friday at Banks’ home in Federal Dam, Minnesota. A traditional burial will take place Saturday in Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig Cemetery at Battle Point on the Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota.

Join the Conversation