With a ceremonial fire burning outside and the aroma of sage wafting inside, a tribute to an influential American Indian activist began Wednesday at a south Minneapolis gym.
As people around the world sent condolences, hundreds filed into the American Indian Center to say their final goodbye to Dennis Banks, who died Sunday from complications of open heart surgery. He was 80.
He’ll be laid to rest in a buffalo robe Saturday on northern Minnesota’s Leech Lake Reservation, amid the traditions and Ojibwe songs he fought to reclaim for his people.
Banks spent a lifetime working for changes that would help generations to come. He called out police violence against Indians, declared war on drugs and pushed to end violence against women.
To other activists who stood with him, he was fearless, powerful, compassionate and funny. To the young people who only read about him, he was a hero.
His legacy allows “our children and the coming generations” to be who they are, said Mitch Walking Elk, stopping to compose himself as he talked about the man he’d known since 1978. “For the system, he was a challenge, because he was committed,” Walking Elk said. “He made the whole world look at us.”
Banks, or “Nowa Cumig” in his native language, was born on the Leech Lake Reservation and raised in the Anishinabe traditions and language. When he was 4, he was sent to boarding schools, part of an effort to assimilate Indians into white culture. Years later, he launched a decades-long battle to reclaim what was taken from his people and to push to improve their lives.
In 1968, Banks helped found the American Indian Movement, which began in Minneapolis as he and others protested police treatment of Indians and fought to combat crime in the south Minneapolis neighborhood that was home to many of his people.
“We wanted to make it a better place,” said AIM co-founder Clyde Bellecourt. “The movement shut down every bar and every liquor store. We got rid of all the trash that surrounded the native people.”
Banks and other activists dug in to build health clinics and housing, Bellecourt said. They developed legal aid services and created economic programs. Banks and other AIM activists took their fight across the country, focusing on treaty issues and human rights.
In November 1972, Banks led AIM in a takeover of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C. — a protest dubbed “The Trail of Broken Treaties.”
In a 71-day standoff in 1973, Banks and others clashed with federal agents at Wounded Knee in South Dakota, the site of the 1890 massacre of Indians by federal troops.
Most recently, he stood with Standing Rock protesters who rallied against the Dakota Access pipeline. “Dennis was a fearless Ojibwe warrior who fought tirelessly for treaty rights, culture rights and self-determination,” said Robby Romero, who was 11 when he was sent to an AIM camp and met Banks for the first time in 1973. “He was willing to give up his life to make a better life for generations to come.”
Banks was a man of strength with a powerful voice, Romero said. But he also was a man of tenderness. And he could tell a good joke. “His humor was endless,” Romero said.
During his final months, he went on a bucket list trip to Grand Portage, Minn., and had heart surgery in hopes of a better quality of life, said his daughter, Tashina Banks.
“He fought for his life when he was 4 and was taken from his mom and he had to survive in the boarding schools, he fought in the military, he fought with AIM, he always fought,” she said. “He fought until the very end. I respect this man immensely. I love him more than my spirit could ever express in words.”
Among many who looked at the tables filled with photographs of Banks and participated in the traditional ceremonies, there was a commitment to carry on Banks’ work.
Amy Hamid, 42, took her 16-year-old son, Maxwell McDougall, out of school to pay their respects. She didn’t personally know Banks, she said, but her mother was active in AIM.
“They gave us a voice because for so long we didn’t have a voice,” Hamid said.
And just as important, they taught young people that they have a responsibility to their communities, she said.
Finishing his tribute at the microphone, Emmett Eastman Sr., 85, sat back in his chair, cherishing the lessons he had learned from a dear friend and those that he passed on to the generations to come.
“They can learn that they too can make change,” Eastman said. “There is hope.”