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Dennis Banks
Banks in 2013
Born (1937-04-12)April 12, 1937
Leech Lake Indian Reservation, Minnesota, United States
Died October 29, 2017(2017-10-29) (aged 80)
Rochester, Minnesota
Nationality Ojibwe, American
Other names Nowa Cumig
Occupation Teacher, lecturer, activist, author
Children 20[1]

Dennis Banks (Ojibwe, April 12, 1937 – October 29, 2017) was a Native American activist, teacher, and author. He was a longtime leader of the American Indian Movement, which he co-founded in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1968 to represent urban Indians.

Born on Leech Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota, he was also known as Nowa Cumig (Naawakamig in the Double Vowel System), which in the Ojibwe language means "in the center of the universe."

Work with AIM

In 1968, Banks co-founded the American Indian Movement (AIM) in Minneapolis.[2] They were seeking to ensure and protect the civil rights of Native Americans living in urban areas.[3]

Banks participated in the 1969–1971 occupation of Alcatraz Island, initiated by Indian students from San Francisco of the Red Power movement. It was intended to highlight Native American issues and promote Indian sovereignty on their own lands. In 1972, he assisted in the organization of AIM's "Trail of Broken Treaties", a caravan of numerous activist groups across the United States to Washington, D.C. to call attention to the plight of Native Americans. The caravan members anticipated meeting with United States Congress leaders about related issues, but government officials, most notably Harrison Loesch, the Interior Department Assistant Secretary responsible for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), refused to meet with delegates.[4] The activists seized and occupied the headquarters of the Department of Interior; in the process some vandalized the offices of the BIA. Many valuable Indian land deeds were destroyed or lost during the occupation.[citation needed]

In 1973 Banks went to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota when the local Lakota civil rights organization asked for help in dealing with law enforcement authorities in nearby border towns. Residents of Pine Ridge believed the police had failed to prosecute the murder of a young Lakota man. Under Banks' leadership, AIM led a protest in Custer, South Dakota in 1973 against judicial proceedings that had resulted in the reduction of charges of a white man to a second degree offense for murdering a Native American.[citation needed]

AIM became involved in the political faction wanting to oust Richard Wilson, the elected chairman of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Opponents believed that he was acting autocratically, including recruiting a private police force. A failure of an impeachment proceeding against him led to a large protest. Banks and other AIM activists led an armed takeover and occupation of Wounded Knee. After a siege of 71 days by federal armed law enforcement, which received national attention, the occupation was ended. A U.S. marshal was shot and paralyzed in March. A Cherokee and an Oglala Lakota were fatally shot in April 1973. Civil rights activist Ray Robinson, who had joined the protesters, disappeared during the occupation and is believed to have been murdered.[5]

Thirty resident families returned to the village to find that their homes and businesses had been looted and destroyed by the activists. The town was never rebuilt. Banks was the principal negotiator and leader of the Wounded Knee forces. Subsequent investigation of Wilson found questionable accounting practices, but no evidence of criminal offenses. As a result of involvement in Custer and Wounded Knee, Banks and 300 others were arrested by the federal government and faced trial. He was acquitted of the Wounded Knee charges, but was convicted of incitement to riot and assault stemming from the earlier confrontation at Custer.[citation needed]

Aquash murder and trial

Refusing the prison term, Banks went underground and organized a small armed AIM group. It included Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, considered the highest-ranking woman in AIM. About this time, the two were also involved in a personal relationship.[6] After disappearing from Denver in late 1975, Aquash was found murdered in February 1976 at the Pine Ridge Reservation. She had been shot in the back of the head execution style, and her murder was unsolved for decades.[citation needed]

Banks was given amnesty in California by then-Governor Jerry Brown, who refused to extradite him to South Dakota to face the charges related to activities in the 1973 Custer protests. He also received financial support from actor and AIM sympathizer Marlon Brando.[citation needed]

In January 2003, a federal grand jury indicted Arlo Looking Cloud and John Graham in the murder of Aquash. Since 2004, they have been convicted by federal and state juries; each is serving a life sentence. Witnesses at the 2004 trial of Arlo Looking Cloud included Darlene Ka-Mook Nichols, Banks' former wife, who testified that she believed Aquash had been ordered killed by AIM leaders who feared she might be an FBI informant. Aquash and Nichols had heard Leonard Peltier brag in 1975 about having seen two FBI agents shot to death earlier that year at Pine Ridge. Peltier was convicted of murdering the agents in 1977, and sentenced to two life terms. He remains imprisoned.[6]

In 2008, Vine Richard "Dick" Marshall was indicted by a federal grand jury for aiding and abetting the murder of Aquash; he was alleged to have provided John Graham with a gun. He was acquitted of the charge. In 1975, he had been serving as one of Banks' bodyguards. Aquash was brought to Marshall's house on the Pine Ridge Reservation in December 1975 before being taken to the site of her murder.[7] Authorities continue to investigate the Aquash murder. In 2014, The New York Times Magazine spoke to Banks for an in-depth feature about the murders of Aquash and Robinson.[5]

Education and career

During his time in California from 1976 to 1983, Banks earned an associate's degree from the University of California, Davis. He taught at Deganawidah Quetzalcoatl University (DQU), a Native American-controlled institute of alternative higher learning, where he became the first American Indian chancellor. In 1978, he established the first spiritual run from Davis to Los Angeles, which is now an annual event. In the spring of 1979, he taught at Stanford University.

After Governor Brown left office, in 1984 Banks received sanctuary from the Onondaga Nation in upstate New York. While on their reservation in New York, Banks organized the Great Jim Thorpe Longest Run from New York to Los Angeles; the goal was to gain restoration of the gold medals which Thorpe had won at the 1912 Olympics for the Thorpe family.

In 1985, Banks left Onondaga to surrender to federal law enforcement officials in South Dakota. He served 18 months in prison related to the 1973 charges for the Custer riot. After his release, he worked as a drug and alcohol counselor on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. During 1987, grave robbers in Uniontown, Kentucky were halted in their digging for artifacts in American Indian grave sites. Banks organized the reburial ceremonies. His activities resulted in the states of Kentucky and Indiana passing strict legislation against grave desecration.[citation needed]

In 2006, Banks led Sacred Run 2006,[8] a spiritual run from San Francisco's Alcatraz Island to Washington, D.C. The runners followed the ancient Native American tradition of bringing a message of "Land, Life and Peace" from village to village. They traveled around 100 miles every day and entered Washington, D.C. on Earth Day, April 22, 2006. Along the way, they took a southern route in solidarity with those who were rebuilding after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Major events were held in Albuquerque, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Mississippi, a civil rights site; Knoxville, and Washington, D.C.

Since "The Longest Walk" in 1978, Sacred Runs have developed as an international movement. Sacred Run 2006 had runners from Japan, Australia, Ireland, and Canada, as well as many from the United States. In 2008, the International "The Longest Walk 2" followed the Sacred Run 2006 route, as well as the original route of 1978 walk. Dennis Banks delivered a "Manifesto for Change" to Representative John Conyers (D-CA).

Banks was a member of the Board of Trustees for Leech Lake Tribal College, a public, two-year college located just outside Cass Lake, Minnesota. Founded and operated by the federally recognized Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, it serves primarily Native American students. Banks participated in its governance and fundraising.


In August 2016, Banks received the vice presidential nomination of the Peace and Freedom Party, a socialist political party with ballot access in California.[9] He appeared on the California ballot with presidential nominee Gloria La Riva.[10]

Other activities

Banks had roles in the movies War Party (1988), The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Thunderheart (1992), and Older Than America (2008).

The musical release Still Strong (1993) features Banks' original songs, as well as traditional Native American songs. He also participated as a musician on such albums as Peter Gabriel's Les Musiques du Monde and Peter Matthiessen's No Boundaries.

Marriage and family

Early in his life, Banks enlisted in the United States Air Force and was sent to Japan. While there, he married a woman named Machiko. After they had been together for two years, Machiko had a daughter, Michiko. Banks left Japan after being court martialed by the Air Force for being AWOL (Absent Without Official Leave). He never saw Machiko or Michiko again. He returned to Japan several times, but Machiko had remarried and Michiko was at university in Northern Japan.[11]

According to birth records from Minnesota, Banks had seven children with wife Jeanette Banks: Janice (born March 2, 1962), Darla (born February 18, 1963), fraternal twins Deanna Jane and Dennis James (born April 20, 1964), Red Elk (born June 7, 1970), Tatanka Wanbli (born September 7, 1971), and Minoh Bekwad Banks (born October 10, 1992).[citation needed]

At Pine Ridge Reservation, Banks met Darlene Kamook Nichols, who was 17 and still in high school. He was 32. After she graduated, they started seeing each other and married. They had three daughters and a son together: Tokala, Tiopa, Tasina and son Tacanunpa Banks.[11] They later divorced. (Kamook Nichols remarried and is now known as Darlene Ecoffey.)

In Salt Lake City he had a daughter, named Arrow, with Angie Begay (Navajo).[11]

Banks has several stepchildren: Roland (Kawliga) Blanchard, Beverly Baribeau, Glenda Roberts, Denise Banks, Pearl Blanchard, and Danielle Louise Dickey. (Dickey was murdered in 2007 on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota). He has a granddaughter named Migizi from Minneapolis, Minnesota.[citation needed]


In 2012, Banks joined forces with Golden Globe and Grammy Award-winning artist Kitaro in celebration of the Earth on the CD Let Mother Earth Speak. The project contains a message of international peace, intertwined with stories and life lessons from Banks, and featuring the music of Kitaro. The album was released on September 11, 2012, on Domo Records.


Banks died at the age of 80 of complications from pneumonia following heart surgery on October 29, 2017 in Rochester, Minnesota.[12]


  • War Party (1988) - Ben Crowkiller / Dead Crow Chief
  • The Last of the Mohicans (1992) - Ongewasgone
  • Thunderheart (1992) - Himself
  • Older Than America (2008) - Pete Goodfeather (final film role)
  • American Experience (2009, TV Series documentary - We Shall Remain: "Part V - Wounded Knee") - Himself
  • A Good Day to Die (2010, Documentary) - Himself
  • Nowa Cumig: The Drum Will Never Stop (2011, Documentary) - Himself
  • California Indian (2011) - Himself


  • Banks, Dennis and Richard Erdoes (2004). Ojibwa Warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American Indian Movement, Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-3580-8


  1. "Who Killed Anna Mae?". New York Times. April 25, 2014. Retrieved November 20, 2018. 
  2. "American Indian Movement founder Dennis Banks dies at 80". October 30, 2017. Retrieved October 30, 2017. 
  3. "Dennis Banks, Dennis Banks, Native American Activist And Wounded Knee Occupier, Dies At 80". NPR. October 30, 2017. Retrieved October 30, 2017. 
  4. Banks, Dennis and Erdoes, Richard: Ojibwa Wizard: Dennis Banks And The Rise Of The American Indian Movement, p. 134.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Eric Konigsberg, "Who Killed Anna Mae?", The New York Times Magazine, 25 April 2014
  6. 6.0 6.1 Deborah Kades, "Native Hero", Wisconsin Academy Review (2005); accessed October 30, 2017.
  7. "U.S. indicts Richard Marshall in Aquash murder case", News from Indian Country, August 26, 2008 Archived October 23, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.
  8. SACRED RUN 2006 – San Francisco to Washington, D. C., 2/10/06–4/22/06 (Earth Day)
  9. Winger, Richard (August 13, 2016). "Peace & Freedom Party Nominates Gloria LaRiva for President". Ballot Access News. Retrieved August 14, 2016. 
  10. "Meet Dennis Banks - Gloria La Riva for President 2016 — Vote Socialist!". Gloria La Riva for President. Retrieved August 14, 2016. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Dennis Banks and Richard Erdoes, Ojibwa Warrior, University of Oklahoma Press, 2005
  12. McFadden, Robert D. (October 30, 2017). ""Dennis Banks, American Indian Civil Rights Leader, Dies at 80"". Retrieved October 30, 2017. 

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