Dennis Banks 1937-2017

Chippewa Dennis Banks, a founder of the American Indian Movement who led the armed two-month Wounded Knee siege in South Dakota and a week-long occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs offices in D.C., has died at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

His niece Wishelle Banks of Nevada said, “His granddaughter was murdered two years ago, and it literally broke his heart. … He was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and underwent surgery at the Mayo Clinic a few days ago.”

Banks and Oglala Sioux Russell Means became the most visible symbols of a newly militant Native American community in the 1970s, though the power of bureaucracy was able to beat back many of the demands of tribes. The ground for the new militancy had been laid among whites by two bestselling books by Dee Brown and Vine Deloria, Jr., and there was substantial sympathy for the movement.

A dispute in South Dakota in which a tribal member was killed by a white person—who was given a light charge—caused a riot in Custer, in which the victim’s mother died.

Shortly afterward, the two AIM leaders rocketed to fame when 200 Native Americans occupied the richly symbolic area around Wounded Knee Creek, where more than 300 Oglala Sioux had been killed by the U.S. Army in 1890. Charges arising from that protest were thrown out of court, but Banks was convicted of riot and assault with a deadly weapon stemming from the Custer incident, and he jumped bail. At one point, he was staying in Winnemucca with few resources. Nevada tribal leader John Trudell rescued him. “John took me to Reno, Nevada, and we stayed there with some supporters for two days,” Banks later wrote. From Reno, Trudell moved Banks to the Bay Area. Eventually, California Gov. Jerry Brown gave Banks sanctuary in the state. Banks later became chancellor of a small college in Davis.

An attack on a tribal girl in Carson City in 1998 and the subsequent trial of Hopi-Paiute-Seminole Rocky Boice, Jr. for his role in a retaliatory beating that caused the death of one of the alleged attackers brought Banks to Nevada to offer support to local Washo tribe members and others.

“He often walked among us here,” Wishelle Banks said after his death. “The Washo always welcomed him.”