Banks, Dennis J. 1932–

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Banks, Dennis J. 1932–

PERSONAL: Born April 12, 1932, in Leech Lake Indian Reservation, MN; children: twenty. Education: University of California—Davis, A.A.

ADDRESSES: Office—P.O. Box 134, Federal Dam, MN 56641.

CAREER: Deganawida Quetzecoatl University, Davis, CA, teacher; American Indian Movement (AIM), cofounder, 1968–; Sacred Run, founder, 1978–. Has also worked as an alcoholism counselor and radio show host. Actor in films, including War Party, 1988, Thunderheart, 1991, and The Last of the Mohicans, 1992. Military service: U.S. Air Force, served during 1950s.

AWARDS, HONORS: Nonfiction Book of the Year award, 1988, for Sacred Soul.


Sacred Soul (autobiography), [Japan], 1988.

(With Richard Erdoes) Ojibwa Warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American Indian Movement (autobiography), University of Oklahoma Press (Norman, OK), 2004.

SIDELIGHTS: Native American activist Dennis J. Banks cofounded the American Indian Movement (AIM) in 1968, and through that organization led the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz in an attempt to force the federal government to return Native lands, including that island, to his people. AIM sponsored a day of mourning in Plymouth, Massachusetts, on Thanksgiving 1970, and in 1971 the group staged a protest at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota to emphasize the rights of the Black Hills Lakota. Banks and other Native-American leaders also led the Trail of Broken Treaties march across the United States to Washington, DC in the fall of 1972, but when they arrived, federal officials refused to meet with them. Because the temporary housing they had expected was not made available, the group occupied the offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) for five days after riot squads attempted to evict them.

Banks led the occupation of Wounded Knee, the site of the 1890 massacre of more than two hundred Sioux by the U.S. Calvary, beginning on February 28, 1973. For seventy-one days, AIM members held out against federal troops that employed artillery, tanks, roadblocks, and helicopter strafing. After the siege ended, Banks was elected AIM's leader, but his tenure was interrupted when he stood trial with fellow AIM activist Russell Means. The men were charged with ten felony counts each, including larceny, conspiracy, and assault. After eight months, charges were dropped by Judge Fred J. Nichol, who cited misconduct on the part of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

In 1975 Banks was indicted for his part in a riot in Custer, North Dakota protesting charges levelled against a man who had killed a young Native American. The victim's mother, Sarah Bad Heart Bull, asked AIM to petition to change the charge of manslaughter to murder. The fight that ensued involved more than two hundred Native Americans and police and resulted in injuries and the burning of the chamber of commerce building. The man who had killed the Native American was acquitted, and Banks, who was free on bail, went underground. South Dakota Governor Richard F. Kneip, who knew that Banks could not get a fair trial in South Dakota and would be killed if he went to prison, asked California Governor Jerry Brown to grant amnesty to Banks, which Brown did.

In California, Banks took a teaching job in Davis, at a small, two-year college for Native Americans. However, due to a change of governor in South Dakota, in 1978, Banks was prosecuted for assault by the governor's newly appointed attorney general, William Janklow. Now safe in California only as long as Brown was governor, Banks fled that state in early 1984, days before law-and-order Republican governor George Deukmejian took office, and sought safety on an Onondaga reservation in upstate New York. While there, Banks initiated charitable programs on behalf of the South Dakota Indians and worked with the youth of the New York reservation in developing athletic skills. Tired of running from South Dakota law, he turned himself in on October 8, 1984. After serving eighteen months of a three-year sentence, he was paroled, and he returned to Oglala on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where he found deplorable conditions. Banks hosted a radio program that blended music and commentary, and he strongly advocated against the use of drugs and alcohol. He also was instrumental in bringing jobs to the reservation.

In 1978 Banks founded Sacred Run, an annual international event. He organized the 1984 Great Jim Thorpe Longest Run from New York to Los Angeles, where the Jim Thorpe Memorial Games were held and where the gold medals that Thorpe had won at the 1912 Olympics were returned to the Native-American athlete's family. The 1988 run began in San Francisco, continued to New York, then crossed Japan, beginning in Hiroshima on the forty-third anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb. In 1990, the runners crossed Europe from England to Moscow. In 1992, they ran from Canada to Mexico. In 1993, they ran six thousand miles across Australia and then another one thousand miles in New Zealand. Banks also led the four-month Walk for Justice from California to Washington in 1994 in support of political prisoner Leonard Peltier, who was convicted of killing an FBI officer at Wounded Knee.

Banks opens his autobiography Ojibwa Warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American Indian Movement with a description of the standoff at Wounded Knee, which he dubs "the greatest event in the history of Native America in the twentieth century." He also reflects on his childhood, youthful rebellion, military service, and his time spent in prison, where he began to study Native-American civil rights.

In reviewing Ojibwa Warrior, Booklist contributor Deborah Donovan wrote that "for readers who can recall the spotty media coverage of these events, this powerful litany of AIM's accomplishments is especially provocative." Banks continues to work on behalf of Native American peoples and support the Sacred Run. He lists his appearances and speaking engagements on his Web site.



Banks, Dennis, Sacred Soul, [Japan], 1988.

Banks, Dennis, and Richard Erdoes, Ojibwa Warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American Indian Movement, University of Oklahoma Press (Norman, OK), 2004.


Booklist, May 15, 2004, Deborah Donovan, review of Ojibwa Warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American Indian Movement, page 1592.

Library Journal, John Burch, review of Ojibwa Warrior, p. 98.

USA Today, September, 2004, Gerald F. Kreyche, review of Ojibwa Warrior, p. 80.


Dennis Banks Home Page, (February 3, 2005).


Dennis Banks at the Six Nations (audiotape), Pacifica Radio Archive (Los Angeles, CA), 1983.

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Banks, Dennis J. 1932–

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