Published on December 13, 2010 by John
Dennis Banks (born April 12, 1937), a Native American leader, teacher, lecturer, activist and author, is an Anishinaabe born on Leech Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota. Banks is also known as Nowa Cumig (Naawakamig in the Double Vowel System). His name in the Ojibwe language means “In the Center of the Ground.”
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Work with AIM
In 1968 he co-founded the American Indian Movement (AIM), and established it to protect the traditional ways of Indian people and to engage in legal cases protecting treaty rights of Natives, such as hunting and fishing, trapping, and wild rice farming.
He participated in the 1969-1971 occupation of Alcatraz Island. In 1972 he assisted in the organization of AIM’s “Trail of Broken Treaties”, a caravan across the United States to Washington, D.C. to call attention to the plight of Native Americans. The caravan members anticipated meeting with United States Congress leaders about related issues; however, government officials refused to meet with delegates of this group which resulted in the seizure, occupation and vandalization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs office.
He also spearheaded the movement on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1973 to oust the allegedly corrupt elected chairman, Richard Wilson. Subsequent investigation of Wilson found questionable accounting practices, but no evidence of criminal offenses. These AIM activities led to the armed takeover and occupation of Wounded Knee, when a predominantly non-Oglala group seized the town residents at gunpoint and held them hostage. After a siege of 71 days, which received national attention, 30 families found that their homes and businesses had been looted and destroyed. The town was never rebuilt. Banks was the principal negotiator and leader of the Wounded Knee forces.
Under his leadership, AIM led a protest in Custer, South Dakota in 1973 against judicial proceeding that reduced the sentence of a white man’s murdering to that of a Native American’s sentence to a second degree offense. As a result of his involvement in Wounded Knee and Custer, Banks and 300 others were arrested and faced trial. He was acquitted of the Wounded Knee charges, but was convicted of incitement to riot and assault stemming from a confrontation at Custer. Refusing the prison term, Banks went underground, organized a small armed AIM group including Anna Mae Pictou Aquash. She was later found murdered. He received amnesty in California by then Governor Jerry Brown, who refused to extradite him to South Dakota. He also received financial support from actor and AIM sympathizer Marlon Brando.
Education and career
During his time in California from 1976 to 1983, Banks earned an associate’s degree from the University of California, Davis and taught at Deganawida Quetzecoatl University (DQU), a Native American-controlled institute of alternative higher learning, where he became the first American Indian chancellor. He also established the first spiritual run from Davis to Los Angeles in 1978, which is now an annual event. In the spring of 1979 he taught at Stanford University. After Governor Brown left office, Banks received sanctuary from the Onondaga Nation in upstate New York in 1984. While in New York, Banks organized the Great Jim Thorpe Longest Run from New York to Los Angeles, where the goal was to restore the gold medals Thorpe had won at the 1912 Olympics to the Thorpe family.
In 1985 Banks left Onondaga to surrender to law enforcement officials in South Dakota and served 18 months in prison. After his release he worked as a drug and alcohol counselor on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. During 1987, grave robbers in Uniontown, Kentucky were halted in their digging for artifacts in American Indian grave sites. Banks organized the reburial ceremonies. His activities resulted in Kentucky and Indiana passing strict legislation against grave desecration.
He has had roles in the movies War Party, The Last of the Mohicans, and Thunderheart. The musical release Still Strong, featuring Banks’ original work as well as traditional Native American songs, was completed in 1993. He can also be heard on other albums: Peter Gabriel’s Les Musiques du Monde, Peter Matthiessen’s No Boundaries.
In 2006, Banks led Sacred Run 2006, a spiritual run from San Francisco’s Alcatraz Island to Washington, D.C. The runners followed the ancient Native American tradition of bringing a message of “Land, Life and Peace” from village to village. They travelled around 100 miles every day and entered Washington, D.C. on Earth Day, April 22, 2006. Along the way, they took a southern route in solidarity with those who are rebuilding after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Major events were held in Albuquerque, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Knoxville, and Washington, D.C.
Over the past 30 years since “The Longest Walk” in 1978, Sacred Runs have become an international movement. Sacred Run 2006 had runners from Japan, Australia, Ireland, and Canada as well as many from the United States. International “The Longest Walk 2″ followed in 2008 the Sacred Run 2006 route, as well as the original route of 1978 walk, ending with the “Manifesto for Change” delivered by Dennis Banks to Rep. John Conyers.
Banks is currently a member of the Board of Trustees for Leech Lake Tribal College, a public, two-year college located just outside Cass Lake, MN. Banks is involved with the governance of and fundraising for the college, which has a student body consisting primarily of Native American students.
Current information on Dennis Banks’ activities can be found on the Web sites of the Nowa Cumig Institute and the Sacred Run site
According to birth records from Minnesota, Dennis has six children: Janice Banks (born 2 March 1962), Darla Banks (born 18 February 1963), twins Deanna Jane and Dennis James Banks (born 20 April 1964), Red Elk Banks (born 7 June 1970), and Tatanka Wanbli Banks (born 7 September 1971). Later he also had four children with his wife Darlene Kamook Nichols (now Darlene Ecoffey). He also had one stepdaughter, Danielle Louise Dickey, who was murdered in 2007 on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota.