The U.S. government’s historic abuse of Native Americans has many chapters, including modern ones, such as the standoff at Wounded Knee in 1973 and today’s protests against a pipeline in North Dakota, reports Dennis J Bernstein.
By Dennis J Bernstein
A new front in the historic struggle of Native Americans to force the U.S. government to respect their rights is the protest against a pipeline that would go through the territory of a small tribe in North Dakota.
This protest has drawn the support of Dennis J. Banks, the co-founder of the American Indian Movement (AIM), who sat down for an interview in San Francisco after helping out with the growing resistance to the pipeline in North Dakota.
Banks was born in 1932 on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota. In 1968, he co-founded A.I.M., “which was established to protect the traditional ways of Indian people and to engage in legal cases protecting treaty rights of Native Americans, such as treaty and aboriginal rights to hunting and fishing, trapping, and gathering wild rice.”
In 1972, AIM organized and led the Trail of Broken Treaties Caravan across the United States to Washington, D.C., calling attention to the plight of Native Americans. Banks led a protest in Custer, South Dakota, in 1973 against a judicial process found a non-Indian innocent of murdering an Indian. Banks also participated the 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973.
His activities led to his arrest, along with 300 others. Banks was acquitted of charges stemming from his participation in the Wounded Knee takeover, but was convicted of riot and assault stemming from the confrontation at Custer. Refusing to serve time in prison, Banks went underground but later received amnesty from Gov. Jerry Brown of California.
Banks’s autobiography, Sacred Soul, was published in Japan, and won the 1988 Non-fiction Book of the Year Award. He had significant roles in the films “War Party” (1988), “The Last of the Mohicans” (1992), and “Thunderheart” (1992). Banks was in San Francisco, as a part of a multi-state tour as a 2016 Vice Presidential Candidate on the Peace and Freedom Party when I interviewed him on KPFA.
Dennis Banks: First of all I want to say thank you to KPFA for allowing for us to come on. We have, when I say we, Native People, we needed Standing Rock, and we needed the people to support us there. As you know, they’re trying to run the pipeline roughshod through a lot of our territories, and we’re scrambling; we thought they were going to win totally, but now, it’s been about nine weeks ago that I first was made aware that there was going to be an encampment going on.
And I kind of followed it at first to see what was going on. It developed, there was 200 people that showed up and made the encampment, and then I was telling my children, I said “Hey, we gotta get involved in this. I don’t know what’s going to happen but we’ve got to get up there.”
Well, my daughters went first, and then they reported back to me, and I realized that something big is going to happen. But I thought at first that the big thing would be that the confrontation would begin quickly, coming to push and shove. But I noticed that the tribal council of Standing Rock had taken a firm, legal action against Dakota Access right away, and that’s when I felt that we could win.
Looking at the brief, looking at the strategy that was going to develop, I thought, “Oh man, this is going to get big.” And I want to say from now, there were 400 people when I first came there, to now seeing on Labor Day weekend, it rose to about 10,000 people. Some say it was 9,500 but we are now listed as the 13th largest village in North Dakota.
And the camp has become a community. And I’ve never seen this kind of support. You know, the struggle with Wounded Knee ended up being a confrontation with the FBI and the U.S. marshals, and weapons and guns. But this one is, oh my God, I’ve never seen and I probably will never see this kind of support again for a really small tribe.
DB: Well, tell us what you saw and more about what moved you?
Banks: Well, first of all, when we reached over, almost close to 1,000 people, the people started to create some learning sessions for a lot of the children that were there. And there was about 15 horses that came there, young boys and girls were riding them. There was a lot of happiness, there was a lot of good feeling. The cooking started to grow, from one big major station, cooking station, where we now have 10 major stations, where they feed the 6,000 – 7,000 people, we’ll feed them within an hour and a half. And that’s how we’re getting it down.
And, also, the children, the learning situation became really vital. And it began to show and become clear that we’re not there just for a couple of days. We’re going to be in it for the long run. Knowing that the teachers–some are retired, some are active teachers in other colleges, universities–they came there to teach for a week. Now some of them have been there for four or five weeks. It’s growing. It’s growing with a sense of huge love. I’ve seen tractor trailers coming in there with logs, with food and warm clothing, and recently, just a lot of warm clothing, and a lot of big tents.
And then I’ve seen also from the first amount of flags. I saw it go from 30 flags, National flags, to now where I’ve seen over 250 flags flying right now, and we’ve got them in formation. It looks like the United Nations, better, bigger than the United Nations.
I rarely hear arguments. And you don’t hear arguments, and yelling and screaming. And we have curfews now because of the kids, the children going to school. And we’re very strict about that. There were some
people that came there, one or two people, and have been asked to leave because we understand that they had warrants for them, in other states. And we don’t want this to be a sanction. We didn’t want to get
involved in it.
DB: You would say that generally this is non-violent resistance with a growing permanence to it?
Banks: Oh yes. And I think that that’s why the support out there is overwhelming. I mean, not only support from the United States but we’re getting support from Japan. We’re getting support from people from Europe, from Brazil, people sending delegations, from the South Seas. We had a delegation of men and women singing songs from Tahiti, Hawaii, places like that. It is absolutely beautiful. I’ve never seen it happen in this way. And I’m lucky that I was chosen to be on some of the committees there.
DB: Tell us about the committees. You’re are on the entertainment committee now?
DB: Tell us about…that seems like a leap from Wounded Knee.
Banks: Yeah, it was interesting in how it came down. I was laughing at it myself. They said, “Well, Banks we’d like to have you on the entertainment committee because you know a lot of entertainers.” And myself and Robbie Romero, we’ve been on that and we’ve contacted people. And we had the chance to talk to Willie Nelson. I’ve known Willie for 30 years. But he said to me “Dennis, I’m just getting too god-damned old for this.” And I said, “Well, Willie can you do a video at home and just send that?” Because we’re going to be airing these things at our big conference hall over at the casino. And we’re bringing in hip hop artists.
DB: So, you’re on the entertainment committee and is there a lot of interest in that community? You mentioned Willie Nelson, are people caring at that level? Is this having reverberations in those sort of places, that have traditionally really supported your work?
Banks: Absolutely, well, Leonard DiCaprio has voiced his concern. He definitely wants to come. He said “I’ve got a tight schedule right now, but let me go over there, my schedule is loose so I can stay a few days.” And, of course, we’re getting Jackson Brown; he wants to come. Also, Kristofferson definitely is going to be there in February. He’s doing a tour. And now he’s going to do almost 3 – 4 months tour. We also need Santana; You know, he’s an old friend of mine.
FIFTEEN MINUTES FOR 15,000 YEARS OF HISTORY
DB: Let me jump in here Dennis. You have taken so many extraordinary actions to call attention to the ongoing genocidal attempt by the United States government to continue to get rid of the Native Peoples of this continent. What’s happening in North Dakota, with them trying to plow into sacred lands, this is nothing short of that. Right?
Banks: Well, yes. And I mean not only the U.S. government but the local states themselves encroaching on Indian land. You know, they’re the ones that agreed to this pipeline coming through. But the Corps of Engineers now they permitted…they gave the permits to North Dakota…And then the Dakota State people said they had consultation with Standing Rock Sioux tribe. And Standing Rock laughed at them and their use of the word “consultation.” The Corps of Engineers calls them up, talks them up for about 15 minutes.
DB: That’s the consultation.
Banks: That’s the consultation, and the tribe has laughed at that.
DB: Fifteen minutes to talk about 15,000 years of history?
Banks: Oh, man. So, that’s why Standing Rock decided to take the Corps of Engineers and Dakota Access Pipeline to court. And that’s where we’re at right now. But one thing which has surfaced since nine weeks ago is the Endangered Species Act. Right now there’s the Grey Wolf that’s in that area. There’s also the Black-Footed Ferret in that area. There’s two kinds of cranes there, Whooping cranes, and the Least Tern (that’s the name of that one), and then the Sturgeon and others have also been identified. The EPA said there’s a list which contains probably about four more [endangered species]. And we’re eventually going to have to consider filing an action under the EPA. Now, I say this because I hope it gets word out to them, I hope somebody knows this and tells these guys they’re are on the wrong side of history. And we’re not going to give into this.
And even though there are helicopters flying around, buzzing around, the APC’s running around there, the armored personnel carriers. And even though we see the military uniforms around there now, nobody is going away. And, as a matter of fact, they’re staying: people, men, women, and children. As I said this is a huge step. It was in the struggle of Wounded Knee, and the Longest Walk, and now in what’s happening at Standing Rock. We needed Standing Rock, we need Standing Rock. And when that thing started to build, and I first said to my children “Hey, we gotta get involved with this.” And we’re 5.5 hours away: We drove over there. Well, as I said earlier my daughters drove over first and reported back to me. They said, “Dad, we need you over Here.”
DB: Well, you know, I have to say this, and again, forgive me, but it’s an honor to have you in the studio, Dennis Banks. I want to say that Wounded Knee planted the seeds, and this is the tree growing. This is one of the trees growing out of that. I’m…I consider myself a tree of Wounded Knee because it was this incredible action that you led with extraordinary people like Leonard Peltier, that gave us hope and courage, and a much broader understanding of what was at stake, and what had happened to the Native Peoples. So that planted the seed.
BANKS: Well, you know, I was going to say, by the way, I know your name so I was going to say jokingly you know with your first name, my last name, we could go into business, you know T.V., or radio station. “Hello, good morning Dennis. Hello Dennis. How are you doing, Dennis?”
DB: I’d be happy to join you on that endeavor, Dennis. The Dennis and Dennis show..it wouldn’t be a Jew and a Sioux, would it?
Banks: Uh Ho!
DB: That’s me, the Jew, I bring that up because we have a lot of visits from Bill Means. You know he’s sort of a regular contributor here, and they all sorta gave me the nickname Burnstick, you know, like holds the light up to the stories that matter.
Banks: There’s a family guy named Burnstick.
DB: Oh, yeah? I guess it makes sense. I want to ask you finally about your work, and the way you have decided to do your work, which is to take, shall we say, long walks. You walk to call attention to that which you believe in, and are actively trying to effect change. Issues such as freeing Leonard Peltier, and crucial issues of health, having to do with diabetes, and the epidemic in the indigenous communities, and the restoration of Jim Thorpe’s medals. Could you talk a little bit about why you walk, how that works for all the commitments, all the things you’ve decided to fight for? Why do you walk?
Banks: I just finished my eighth walk across the country. But I feel that when you’re walking, of course, you begin to meditate, you begin to think there’s this person that needs help, that person, needs support, you know, so you offer your prayers for that person. And walking, and fasting, and running events are to me a form of meditation. And, you know, you’re in your deep, your own thoughts when you’re out there running or walking. No one is communicating with you and so you’ve got to then engage yourself into “what can I do while I’m walking?”
DB: And you tend to really tune into your own breath…
BANKS: Absolutely. And sometimes you realize what faults you have, and you know then you’ve gotta…you know, when I get through running today I think I’m going to call so-and-so and just say “I’m sorry for how I’ve acted all these years.” I’ve done that. I’ve done that many times. I drank in my life. I used to drink, not hard times, but they’d say “Banks are you drunk again?” You know, guys who I call. And [I] say, “Look I’m sorry how I acted.” I try to be not that person who is angry.
DB: But Wounded Knee, and the trial in particular, was certainly worth getting angry about? It made a lot of people angry–all the government corruption and intimidation of witnesses. And the trial was a huge wake up call for you and AIM, that carries you right into the present, to your current work at Standing Rock.
Banks: During the trial at Wounded Knee […] the judge asked each FBI agent, “What was your specific job at Wounded Knee?” And one of them–and I used to just sit there and just listen, not even, sometimes not listen–and then all of a sudden the agent said, “My job was to bring down Dennis Banks.” And that’s when I got up and looked up–I woke up.
DB: He got your attention.
Banks: Yeah. So the judge says, “Was your job to shoot Dennis Banks?” And he said, “No, your honor. My job was to bring down Dennis Banks.” He says, “Well, you didn’t mean to kill him?” And he says, “No, your honor, I meant to bring down Dennis Banks.” And the judge became very angry. And he says, “Well, obviously you failed to bring down Dennis Banks because there he sits today.” He says, “Yes, your honor, but I tried.” “How many times did you try?” “I tried seven times to bring him down.” And oh, this guy had me in his scope. And when he got off the stand while he was walking out of the courtroom, and before he got to the door, he just turned to me and says, “I’m sorry, Mr. Banks, but that was only a job I had.”
DB: The FBI agent apologized, just doing my job.
Banks: Yeah. […] But AIM has learned a lot from Standing Rock. And I think when this is over I think the pipeline will back away, and I think that they will realize that this is not going to go away, and these guys are here for the long run, and we are. And, you know, we’ll outlast these pipeline people. We’ll outlast the pipelines that are under our ground already, in our water. And we’ll be here. We’re in this for the long haul.
DB: I guess you’ve been here a long time. I keep hearing these words from the elders at Standing Rock: We are the land, we are the water. I didn’t move, here I am here.
Banks: Dennis, when I say that I am part mountain, they might not understand that. And when I say I’m part buffalo, and I’m part eagle, and I’m part rose, the flower, I’m part maple tree, oak tree maybe then they’ll begin to understand that we are part of Mother Earth, all of us. Whatever the ingredients are that make up Mother Earth, that’s us. We also have, even the little bit partials of gold, that is running through our system. And we are part sun, we are part moon, we are part Mother Earth, Grandmother Moon. And when people began to understand that kind of thinking then they will understand who we are, as Native People.
And, you know, we didn’t choose to be protectors of the water. We didn’t choose to be protectors of the Earth, protectors of water, protectors of the ground, protectors of the buffalo, and the species that have been endangered, the species that have been obliterated from this Earth, but we are. And we still carry on that responsibility.
Yes, some of us are lawyers, some of us are doctors, some of us are activists, some of us are ditch diggers. But when we go to bed at night we are still that person with those responsibilities and duties. And that’s what makes us who we are. And I am, as I was in Wounded Knee, I was proud, I was not afraid of the FBI or the bullets, or the marshals and their guns, and APCs. It only made me kind of stronger. Because I said “Wow, if Dennis Banks or if the American Indian Movement is that big [that] they’ve gotta quash us with all this hardware, military hardware, then we must be rubbing someone the wrong way.” And maybe they will finally see it in the end. But not our end. Maybe they’ll see it on their end.
DB: When they are threatened with their end.
Banks: Yep, so that’s why I tell my children, even today, “Stay away from the wood ticks, lunatics and politics.”
A PLEA TO FREE LEONARD PELTIER
DB: Obama could still do something extraordinary. He could free Leonard Peltier. [Peltier is a Native American activist who was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences in prison for allegedly shooting two FBI agents during a 1975 conflict on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.]
Banks: Oh, yes, absolutely.
DB: If he has the courage and the belief. He certainly has the legal background to understand exactly what the situation is.
Banks: I had some hope that he would do that. And I still have hope that as he leaves office that he could do this. The parole board said they don’t want to release him because he hasn’t shown remorse. How can you show remorse for something you didn’t do?
The real culprit in this is the manufacturing of evidence against Peltier that put him in prison. And even the federal judge, on the bench of the 8th Circuit Court wrote to the president, wrote to President Bush, the first, H.W. Bush, and said “Release Peltier, after all it was the government that started that fight.” And in the first, the jury, the first trial against the other two that were charged, they were charged with aiding and abetting. And they used the self-defense theory. And the judge allowed them to use it. And they proved that the government came in there shooting and the jury found them not guilty.
But the judge in the next case, against Peltier, ruled that they could not use…the self-defense theory[…]. And Peltier was charged with aiding and abetting. But yet he was prosecuted as if he was the shooter. And even at the end he says, “And so Peltier shoots, takes his rifle and shoots [FBI agent Jack R.] Coler, and he aims it at [FBI agent Ronald A.] Williams, and he kills them both.” He was charged as the shooter. And he was convicted of a double murder. And he sits in prison today for something that he did not do.
DB: Can I ask you too…we’ve got about a minute. If you were sitting with Obama right now and you’re making the case – it’s time to stand up and release Peltier. What would you say to him?
Banks: I would say, Mr. President, other presidents have left a legacy of greatness, and down through history people do certain things that bring greatness. I think one of those acts would be to set a man free, and let that be your legacy.