The University Record, January 30, 1995

AIM co-founder Banks urges Native Americans to ‘find yourself’

By Debbie Gilbert
News and Information Services

Dennis Banks, one of the founders of the American Indian Movement (AIM), held about 150 people spellbound during a Martin Luther King Day presentation as he interwove U.S. history, the history of AIM and his personal history together in a compelling saga of loss, suffering and survival. Banks’ visit was sponsored by the Native American Student Association.

AIM, the Indian civil rights organization, was founded in July 1968 in the midst of national unrest over Viet Nam, civil rights and the women’s movement. During that year, Banks not only read about Viet Nam and Malcolm X, but also about Crazy Horse, Chief Joseph and General Custer, “the real history of our people.”

Much of it was a revelation because Banks had been educated in a federal military boarding school, where he stayed for 11 years. “All the photos on the walls were of white people. I memorized all the names of the presidents and all the capitals of the states. I could spell the names of distant lands, kings, queens, pharaohs and dictators. But I didn’t know the history of my own people, not even how to say, ‘How are you?’ in my own language.

“The school attempted to strip me of my identity, the very spiritual foundation that has governed the Indian nation. I knew how to sing ‘God Bless America’ and ‘My Country ’Tis of Thee,’ but they would not let me sing Native American songs. They tried to turn our minds into minds of non-Indian people. So in 1968, I recognized that I needed to be cleansed.”

Banks also had learned first hand of a long history of police brutality toward Indians. So in July 1968, in Minneapolis, “I told about 200 people crowded into a small room that we had to begin to deal with the issues,” and police brutality in particular. At 11 p.m., without a parade permit, they marched to police headquarters to demand redress.

“The police denied any brutality, so we set up AIM patrols with cameras and spent the weekend capturing the brutality on film. Then we moved on to [document problems with] slum landlords, the welfare system and the employment offices,” and established the AIM Legal Rights Center.

“We were on the move because we were hungry, tired of the pain, tired of having our throats slit, tired of brutality,” Banks said.

In 1972, AIM led American Indian caravans from Seattle, Los Angles and San Francisco to Washington, D.C., to protest programs controlling Indian development.

“We had from 3,000 to 5,000 cars—old, beat-up Indian cars. The Bureau of Indian Affairs tried to slam the doors on us, so we occupied the building for seven days.”

Eventually, AIM negotiated a settlement and left the building, but shortly thereafter the FBI launched a hunt for the leaders of AIM, which culminated in a 71-day “shooting frenzy” at Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1973. Banks escaped but was “on the run for 11 years.”

Banks pointed to some progress for American Indians. “Gaming operations support many Native Americans and keep them off welfare. Native Americans in Minnesota now employ 16,000 people, of all ethnic groups. Gaming may not be our whole answer to economic development, but it is there. Alcoholism is still a great concern, but the young people are taking the lead to combat it, holding sobriety dances across the country,” he added.

Mining on Indian lands, however, continues to be a major issue, and “AIM is still fighting the coal companies. Last year, the Supreme Court stripped 1.9 million acres of land from the Northern Utes,” Banks said somberly, “and 25 reservations are targeted to become nuclear waste sites.”

To the Native Americans in the audience, Banks said: “Travel the country and get to know various tribes and the problems with their lands. Use your life. Time is very short. Visit a native person making a flute, observe a ceremony, go into a sweat lodge. You will never forget that experience. There are places you can go and find yourself. Once you find yourself and the purpose in your life, the rest is easy.”