National Indian Gaming Association Mourns the Loss of Native American Activist Dennis Banks

Dennis J. Banks

1937 - 2017


WASHINGTON, D.C. - November 03, 2017 - The National Indian Gaming Association joins the rest of Indian Country in mourning the loss of Native American rights advocate and leader of the American Indian Movement (AIM) Dennis Banks.

According to a statement released by his family, Banks, 80 walked on to the spirit world on Sunday, October 29, 2017 after a fight with pneumonia, which came after open-heart surgery.  The official family statement shared on Banks' Facebook page.  "Our father Dennis J. Banks started his journey to the spirit world at 10:10 pm on October 29, 2017. As he took his last breaths, Minoh [Grandson] sang him four songs for his journey. All the family who were present prayed over him and said our individual goodbyes. Then we proudly sang him the AIM song as his final send-off."

NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens, Jr. said, "We are saddened to hear about the passing of Dennis Banks.  His leadership and activism will never be forgotten.  He lived his life advocating on behalf of Indian country, always putting the rights of our Native people first."

Stevens continued, "As a young teenager, I learned first-hand about the passion and dedication Dennis had for the advocacy of our Native people.  He was a great mentor to many."

Banks was born in 1932 on the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe reservation in northern Minnesota.  He was a leader, teacher, lecturer, activist, and author.  At age five he was separated from his family and placed at Pipestone Indian Boarding School. He left boarding school at age 17 and went on to serve in the U.S. Military and was stationed in Japan.

In 1968, Banks helped found AIM to address racism, police brutality and protect civil rights of Indian People. As one of the founders of the AIM, Dennis Banks spent much of his life protecting the traditional ways of Indian people and engaging in legal cases protecting treaty rights of Native Americans. In 1969, AIM activists took over Alcatraz Island, which made national headlines. In 1972, he led the Trail of Broken Treaties to march on Washington, DC and demand a seat at the table to ensure and protect the civil rights of Native Americans. Government officials refused to meet with them, which led to a takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters.  

A year later, in 1973, Dennis Banks and other members led one of the most instrumental movements in modern day history at Wounded Knee. Wounded Knee was located on the poorest region in the United States, Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. Besieged by federal agents for 71 days, activists remained vigilant and refused to surrender. They aimed to bring to the forefront, issues of poverty, lack of jobs, mistreatment, and of course broken treaties.

Between 1976 and 1983, Banks earned an associate of arts degree at the University of California, Davis, and taught at Deganawidah-Quetzecoatl (DQ) University (an all-Indian controlled institution), where he became the first American Indian university chancellor. In the spring of 1979, he taught at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

In 1987, Banks was active in convincing the states of Kentucky and Indiana to pass laws against desecration of Indian graves and human remains. He organized reburial ceremonies for over 1,200 Indian grave sites that were disturbed by graverobbers in Uniontown, Kentucky.

In 1988, Banks organized and led a spiritual run called the Sacred Run from New York to San Francisco, and then across Japan from Hiroshima to Hokkaido. Also in 1988, his autobiography Sacred Soul was published in Japan and won the 1988 Non-fiction Book of the Year Award.

Banks continued to stay involved in American Indian issues, including AIM.  He traveled the globe lecturing, teaching Native American traditions, and sharing his experiences. He had key roles in the films, The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Thunderheart (1992) and Academy Award nominated film A Good Day to Die (2010). In 2004, Banks co-authored Ojibwa Warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American Indian.

His success in creating change for Indian Country is a direct result of his traditional, humble upbringing and diplomatic nature. He was able to see both sides of the coin and was cognizant of differing viewpoints, which enabled him to bring people together for the greater good. Chairman Stevens had the amazing opportunity to experience this first hand.

"As a young man growing up in and around the turbulent era of activism in the seventies, I always gravitated toward the leadership in those circles. 

Sometimes I was looking for attention or just trying to get as close to the leadership as a young teenager had a right to.  I wanted to be involved in something meaningful and influential for and in Indian Country.  Most of the time issues were out of my level of understanding but I would always garner some sort of encouragement.  Dennis Banks was one of those leaders who had the patience and understanding for a young warrior wanting to learn more about being a leader.  He took this young, energetic activist and provided a kind, fatherly influence that stayed with me throughout my life and career.  Him humbleness, diplomacy and ability to bring many views together to make change for Indian Country have had a lasting impact in my life.  Rest in Peace, Dennis Banks.  You are my hero!"

Wake and funeral services for Banks began today at the Minneapolis American Indian Center.   Wake services also will take place Thursday at the Northern Lights Casino in Walker, Minnesota, and on Friday at Banks' home in Federal Dam, Minnesota. A traditional burial will take place Saturday in Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig Cemetery at Battle Point on the Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota.