Richard “Dick” Bancroft combined his lifelong hobby of taking pictures with his passion for social justice to become the unofficial photographer of the American Indian Movement (AIM).
He was there in 1978 to capture the defiant faces of activists fighting proposed legislation in Washington, D.C. He was on hand in 1981 at the United Nations in Geneva during testimony about the forced sterilization of native women. And he was there countless other times, from Minneapolis to El Salvador and Northern Ireland, to document and raise awareness about the plight of indigenous people around the world.
Many of his pictures are included in a book called “We Are Still Here: A Photographic History of the American Indian Movement,” published in 2013 by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.
Bancroft, who suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, died peacefully July 16 at his home in Sunfish Lake. He was 90.
“Dad was always engaged in some way with disenfranchised people,” said his daughter, famed Polar explorer Ann Bancroft, the first woman to ski the ice caps to reach the North and South poles. “He realized his photography could lend to amplifying their voices and it grew from there.”
She added that he instilled in her and her siblings a fascination about the world and a love of adventure.
“He gave us a peek at the broader world,” she said. “My dad had an insatiable sense of fun and curiosity. I like to say he got us into a lot of good, wonderful trouble.”
His wife, Debbie, concurred that he had a mischievous way about him.
“He was a little bit naughty,” she said. “He liked to defy the norms. He would wear his bluejeans and his AIM cap into church or to a wedding or someplace where you were supposed to be dressed up.”
Born in St. Paul, Bancroft attended the University of Minnesota. He started taking pictures as a boy with a little Kodak Brownie camera. He was thrilled when his wife gave him a newer camera as a wedding present.
Bancroft sold insurance for a time. From 1966 to 1968, he lived with his wife and children in Nairobi, Kenya, on a mission through the Presbyterian church.
“He started taking more pictures of people there — nontraditional tourist kind of pictures,” his wife said. “He did it very discreetly and very carefully so he didn’t offend people.”
When he came back to the U.S., he got hooked up with AIM while working on a committee for the St. Paul United Way, which gave the group a grant. Asked how he could help the cause, he was told he could take pictures. There weren’t many native photographers at the time.
“I got sucked up in their struggle and developed an understanding of how they got ripped off, their land and their resources,” Bancroft told the Star Tribune in 2016.
Clyde Bellecourt, one of the founders of AIM, said his work was very much appreciated.
“He’s photographed everything — the whole history of the movement,” Bellecourt said in 2016. “He was a godsend.”
Bancroft also took his activism to the local level, getting involved in debates about smaller things such as whether or not to put in a speed bump.
“Sunfish Lake is quite a small community,” said his wife. “He was nicknamed the ‘Lord of Sunfish Lake.’ ”
He also, she added, had an abiding love of duct tape. If he got a hole in his trousers, he’d mend them with duct tape.
“Our house is full of duct-taped furniture,” she said.
Bancroft continued taking pictures until his last few years, even as his eyesight worsened.
Other survivors include his son, Hunter, daughters Ann, Carrie and Sarah and six grandchildren.
Plans for a celebration of his life are pending.