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His AIM Is True

Dennis Banks
Tradition Keeper: Native American organizer Dennis Banks believes in the sustaining power of traditional rituals.

Dennis Banks runs for justice on behalf of American Indian rights

By Barbara Wilcox

Dennis Banks, cofounder of the American Indian Movement, has probably done as much as anyone alive to advance American Indian rights. He's best known for leading the 1973 occupation by militant Indians of Wounded Knee, S.D., where, 83 years before, U.S. troops had slain a band of Lakota women and children.

"Wounded Knee II" did more than settle scores. It forced Americans to wrest living Indian people from the romanticized historical past in which whites had placed them.

Now 63 and still AIM's national field director, Banks is at pains to present himself as a kinder, gentler Indian-rights activist, the father of 20 children and corporate partner (with the Aveda cosmetics firm) of a foundation that benefits young runners. He comes to De Anza College on March 15 to raise funds for his Sacred Run Foundation, which sponsors long-distance runs in line with various Indian traditions that give running a spiritual meaning.

Banks himself will suit up for the latest, a 105-day trip through Australia, Japan and Europe. He runs five miles a day, "though it's more of a jog these days for me," he says by phone from his Newport, Ky., home.

"In every country in the world," he adds, "there's been messengers, there's been runners bearing symbols. Rather than point fingers at corporations, we came to the conclusion that we should strengthen our own ceremonies, strengthen what we do."

Banks, an Anishinabe from Minnesota, grew up in a world that would seem not to repay such relentless good will. For most of this century, federal policies broke up many remnants of Indian lands and sent their inhabitants to scratch out livings in places like Los Angeles. Between a quarter and a third of all Indian children were raised in non-Indian foster homes; most of the rest, including Banks himself, were sent to faraway boarding schools where their family culture and language slipped irrevocably away.

Banks helped found AIM in 1968 to address these Indians' needs. It was quickly ignited by the smoldering resentment of the Pine Ridge Lakota people, who were paying for their ancestors' ferocity by living on a reservation that resembled a police state.

"What we did in the 1960s and early 1970s," Banks says, "was raise the consciousness of white America that this government has a responsibility to Indian people. That there are treaties; that textbooks in every school in America have a responsibility to tell the truth. An awareness reached across America that if Native American people had to resort to arms at Wounded Knee, there must really be something wrong. And Americans realized that native people are still here, that they have a moral standing, a legal standing. From that, our own people began to sense the pride."

Two decades later, some things have improved. New laws allow Indian religious observances, for instance. But Indian unemployment still hovers at 40 percent.

"Sure, there's alcohol and drugs," Banks says. "But our young people are moving ahead. When you have a spiritual foundation, you look at poverty differently then. You might not have a car, but you know you can run someplace, you can go someplace."

AIM remains active, though much of its leadership was killed or jailed in the 1970s. Banks' own Wounded Knee charges were thrown out of court, but he was convicted of riot and assault charges stemming from an earlier protest. He fled to California, receiving sanctuary from then-governor Jerry Brown and eventually spending three years in prison.

On one recent Sacred Run, Banks and his team gathered 730,000 signatures supporting the release of jailed AIM leader Leonard Peltier, now serving consecutive life terms for the killing of two FBI agents during the government crackdown that followed Wounded Knee. Many of the surviving participants have said the 71-day siege remains the high point of their lives. For that honor, however, Banks prefers to recall witnessing the birth in 1980 of a baby daughter, his child number 17.

"Every man should see the birth of his children," Banks says. "If he could see that, then internally that person would be in favor of life. You would never think of harming somebody's life, of raising a hand against your companion."

Retirement? "I'm on this road for the rest of my life. I enjoy teaching people; I want to bring them along to a place most people, including many Christians, would otherwise know nothing about. I'm not going to stop. I have a Father's Day every day."


Dennis Banks speaks Friday (March 15) at De Anza College, Forum 1, Cupertino. Tickets are $5/$8. (408/864-5448)

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From the Mar. 14-20, 1996 issue of Metro

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