Dennis Banks died Sunday night in Minnesota. The American Indian Movement founder was 80.
While taking note of his detractors, who saw him as a vain and irresponsible attention-seeker, the New York Times said, “To admirers, Mr. Banks was a broad-chested champion of native pride. … He was a paladin who defied authority and, in an era crowded with civil rights protests, spoke for the nation’s oldest minority.”
Is there any reason we on the Pacific Northwest coast should cast a thought in his direction?
Along with contemporaries including Billy Frank Jr. in Washington state, Banks symbolized a watershed in Native American history — a firm determination to begin controlling their own destiny.
“We had reached a point in history where we could not tolerate the abuse any longer, where mothers could not tolerate the mistreatment that goes on on the reservations any longer, where they could not see another Indian youngster die,” Banks said.
Banks and others with A.I.M. occupied the old federal prison island of Alcatraz from November 1969 to June 1971, turning it into an enduring symbol of Indian empowerment.
Speaking this week about Banks, Chinook Indian Nation Chairman Tony Johnson said, “My family and I will be visiting Alcatraz over the weekend. Definitely have had those guys on my mind. One thing amazing is how small Indian Country is. There are a lot of people, both friends and family, who were there during the occupation. Probably also important to remember is all of the average native people who were there and made those significant events happen.” A Chinook Indian from South Bend, Washington, participated in support of the occupiers at considerable personal risk, Johnson said.
Indian and non-Indian alike, we live on lands that were home to Native civilizations for many centuries. Banks, no matter his human flaws, played a significant part in helping all Americans understand the price his people paid. It benefits everyone to know the truth and for our Indian neighbors to be full and honored participants in modern society.