Dick Bancroft was a dropout from the University of Minnesota, an insurance salesman, then a Presbyterian missionary who lived in Nairobi, Kenya, with his wife, Debbie, and four children from 1966 to 1968.
But in 1970, he had a life-changing experience, meeting American Indian Movement (AIM) members. For the past 46 years he's chronicled AIM's causes as its unofficial photographer.
"I'm not a missionary anymore," said Bancroft, 88. "I'm an advocate for Indians."
The result of Bancroft's work is a trove of pictures he hopes one day will be housed in an AIM Interpretive Center. The center has a temporary one-room gallery at 1113 E. Franklin Av., Suite 103, in Minneapolis where most of the 150 photos on the walls came from Bancroft's camera. Hours are 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays.
There are photos of Indian children playing as others beat a drum, of a young Indian woman in tears as she listens to a United Nations report in Geneva about the forced sterilization of native women, and pictures of AIM activists during the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C., in 1972.
Bancroft's AIM career all began quite accidentally. He was on a health and welfare committee with the St. Paul United Way when AIM asked the agency for $25,000 for some of its programs. The agency asked him to chair a committee to consider the proposal.
He spoke with AIM activists Pat Bellanger, Eddie Benton Banai, Clyde Bellecourt and Dennis Banks. His committee urged United Way to give the money.
Then in 1971, AIM staged an occupation of an empty building at the local U.S. Naval Air Station. The United Way, having recently donated to the group, wasn't pleased, according to Bancroft. So it sent him to meet with AIM to find out why they were doing it.
AIM activists explained their reasoning: The land originally belonged to the Indians, and when the government abandoned the building, "it reverts back to the original owner," Bancroft said.
Bancroft said he thought AIM needed some help and asked Bellanger what he could do.
She asked, "What do you do?"
Bancroft told her he'd been photographing peace demonstrations in Washington, D.C. Bellanger's advice? "Take pictures."
And so it began. "I got sucked up in their struggle and developed an understanding of how they got ripped off, their land and their resources," Bancroft said.
Many of Bancroft's photos are also included in a book called "We Are Still Here," published in 2013 by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.
"He's photographed everything — the whole history of the movement," Bellecourt said. "He was a godsend."
An interesting side note: One of his daughters is Ann Bancroft, the famed explorer, the first woman to ski across the ice caps and reach the North and South Poles.
She recalls going with her father when he visited AIM members during the Naval Station occupation. AIM members frequently visited or stayed at their house. Phillip Deere, an AIM medicine man, would sit in their living room, whittling a peace pipe.
"Palling around with Dad was always an adventure," she said.