In Memoriam: Dennis Banks

Former American Indian Movement (AIM) leader Dennis Banks died Sunday night at the age of 80.

My doctoral dissertation (University of Nebraska, 2000) and first book (Texas Tech Press, 2007) dealt with AIM, particularly their controversial political work and on Pine Ridge Reservation (SD) during the 1970s.

AIM was a very important but also highly flawed organization.  Some of their problems were not their fault, as they suffered extreme government persecution and repression, especially in the form of illegal FBI counterintelligence programs.  But sometimes they they made their own mess by not particularly caring who got burnt by their scorched earth rhetoric, or harmed by their often disorganized protests.

In a 2005 review of Dennis Banks’ memoir, I wrote the following:

There is also the brash rhetorical style and techniques that are emblematic of the speeches and writings of many AIM members.  It was shocking and original in the 1970s, and still has the power to move, but three decades later it at times seems tired.

Yes, by then the times had passed Banks by in some ways.  Nonetheless, it was and still is astonishing to consider how far he had come to co-found AIM during the late 1960s in St. Paul, Minnesota, and then become a prominent national figure.

Dennis Banks was born on the Leech Lake Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) Reservation in northern Minnesota.  Like many Indigenous children of his (and several prior) generations, he was sent to a boarding school and forbidden to speak his Native tongue.  He was barely a teenager when he ran away and never looked back.

After joining the Air Force, Banks was stationed in Japan.  He soon married a Japanese woman.  However, when Air Force officials discovered that she and her family were communists, they ordered Banks to stop seeing her; never mind that they had a baby daughter by then.  So the three of them went on the lam.  Air Force military police caught up to them one night and dragged Banks away in chains.  He was sent back stateside and never saw his wife or child again.

After that, Banks’ life slowly unraveled.  Alcoholism, petty crime, and occasional homelessness were punctuated by several stints in prison.  It was there that he met other Native inmates and began getting back in touch with his heritage.  That was where AIM came from.

Despite its many flaws, AIM was important.  Not because of any concrete political or economic gains they won for Native people, which were essentially none.  But rather, because their brash and confrontational Red Power movement did for Indigenous Americans precisely what Black Power did for African Americans.  It celebrated Indian culture and identity, directly challenging, criticizing, and to some extent even banishing decades of colonial mentality.  Indian people should no longer be ashamed to be Indian, AIM members insisted.  They never should have been ashamed in the first place.  Popular culture, Christian missionaries, government schools, and all the rest were flat out wrong, they said.  Indians weren’t savages.  They weren’t inferior.  If anything, they were better.  Indigenous cultures weren’t backwards; rather, they offered a viable and even superior way forward.

During AIM’s heyday from 1969-1975, the movement was led primarily by Banks and Russell Means, who passed away almost exactly five years ago today.

There was good and bad to AIM, and we must strive to take a balanced view of the organization’s legacy, even if, or perhaps especially since, AIM itself was so often one-sided, self-interested, and even disdainful of balance.  That AIM’s actions did not always live up to its lofty ideals is important to recognize, but so too are the ways that they shaped Indian self-perceptions and the larger national discourse on Indian affairs.

Think of it like this: if you’re a non-Indian who realizes just how fucked up it is that there’s still an NFL team called the Redskins, then you can indirectly thank Banks and AIM.  Because before them, hardly any non-Indians ever thought things like that were wrong.

And if you’re stymied by the fact that many of the same people who still have no problem with the name Redskins would be outraged, or at the very least sympathetic, if there were teams named the Coons, Chinks, Beaners, or Kikes, then you also recognize just how much more work remains to be done towards fully achieving of the goals of Red Power, Black Power, and other important identity movements.

We’ve come a long way, yes, but we still have a long way to go.  We need not adopt the tactics of AIM and the Black Panthers, but we must continue pursuing their agenda of awakening all Americans to  the racism that still thrives in and taints our society.  On that, we need not compromise.

2 thoughts on “In Memoriam: Dennis Banks

  1. Dear Professor, I have enjoyed your writing but I gotta say on this one, where’s the grace? The man did good work. Please check your hegemony at the door and pick it up on your way out if you must. Leading the blog with your academic work Re: AIM. Excuse me, the man is dead, padded and gone. Dennis Banks stood up and made something known, a signifier, a cultural event, no, more than that he attempted to change society as he knew it because of the lack of grace in the world that he knew and loved. Let us live by his example

    1. Perhaps mentioning my work early in the essay was in bad taste. If so, I apologize. It was not meant as bragging. I never met or interviewed Banks, as I did with Means and Trudell respectively, and I was just trying to give readers (many of whom have little or no familiarity with these issues) a sense of where I was coming from.

      As to my take on Banks, I can only partially agree with you. I think we should live by some of his examples, not all of them. I think he leaves a mixed legacy. There is a lot of pro-AIM hagiography out there. There are also a lot of angry critics unwilling to acknowledge all the good work. I think in this case the truth lies somewhere in the middle. AIM, Banks, et al were very important and made positive contributions. They also crossed many lines that should not have been crossed.

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