Native Activist and AIM Leader Dennis Banks Dies at Age 80

By Sameer Rao Oct 31, 2017

The family of Native activist leader Dennis Banks confirmed his death to The Associated Press and other media outlets yesterday (October 30). He was 80.

Banks’ daughter Tashina Banks Rama told The AP that her father died on Sunday night (October 29) at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He succumbed to pneumonia, which he developed after undergoing heart surgery earlier this month.

His family noted on Facebook that his son Minoh Banks "sang four songs for his journey" before joining his siblings to sing the American Indian Movement (AIM) song:

This account of Banks’ last moments speaks to the ways he celebrated and advocated for Native people throughout his life. The AP reports that Banks, or Nowacumig in his native Ojibwe language, founded AIM with other Indigenous activists in Minneapolis in 1968. The organization fought for Native American liberation from ongoing U.S. government oppression. Banks and his collaborators saw the direct lines between centuries of genocidal campaigns and the cocktail of social injustices—police violence, economic segregation and land use treaty violations among them—affecting Native peoples both on reservations and in the urban "red ghettos" that arose from their economic displacement.

Banks organized and participated in several AIM campaigns, including occupations of Alcatraz Island (1969-1971), the Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Washington D.C. (1972) and Wounded Knee, South Dakota (1973). Each of those actions protested the U.S. government’s violations of treaties with the Native community.

Per The AP, Banks and fellow AIM leader Russell Means faced felony conspiracy and assault charges for the Wounded Knee occupation, in which armed AIM members and local Oglala Lakota activists took over the town for 71 days. AIM and its allies ultimately held the site against incursion by U.S. Marshals and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with periodic gunfire exchanges resulting in the death of two Native participants. The U.S. District Court of South Dakota ultimately acquitted both men. Banks later served an 18-month incarceration on similar charges for a 1973 AIM action in Custer, South Dakota.

His activism continued into the 21st century. Banks revisited Wounded Knee for occupation anniversary events in 1998 and 2003. In 2010, he and other Ojibwe tested their fishing rights under an 1855 agreement by casting nets in Minnesota’s Lake Bemidji. He also joined the Standing Rock Sioux and water protectors to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline last year.

“Dennis Banks is somebody who had an indelible impact on history, not just in our Native community but throughout our country,” Anton Treuer, a professor of the Ojibwe language at Bemidji State University, told The AP.

His family announced funeral plans on his Facebook page: