Dennis Banks, 80, American Indian civil rights leader

Associated Press/file 1974

Mr. Banks won national attention leading often-violent protests.

By Robert D. McFadden New York Times  

NEW YORK — Dennis J. Banks, the militant Chippewa who founded the American Indian Movement in 1968 and led often-violent insurrections to protest the treatment of Native Americans and the nation’s history of injustices against its indigenous peoples, died Sunday night at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. He was 80.

His daughter Tashina Banks Rama said the cause was complications of pneumonia after successful open-heart surgery a week ago at the clinic. Mr. Banks lived on the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota, where he was born and had grown up.


Mr. Banks and his Oglala Sioux compatriot Russell Means were by the mid-1970s perhaps the nation’s best-known Native Americans since Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, who led the attack that crushed the cavalry forces of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in the Montana Territory in 1876.

Mr. Banks, whose early life of poverty, alcoholism, and alienation mirrored the fates of countless ancestors, led protests that caused mass disorder, shootouts, deaths, and grievous injuries. He was jailed for burglary and convicted of riot and assault, and he became a fugitive for nine years. He found sanctuary in California and New York, but finally gave up and was imprisoned for 14 months.

Mr. Banks and Means first won national attention for declaring a Day of Mourning for Native Americans on Thanksgiving Day in 1970. Their band seized the ship Mayflower II, a replica of the original in Plymouth, Mass., and a televised confrontation between real Indians and costumed “Pilgrims” made the American Indian Movement leaders overnight heroes.

Mr. Banks led a six-day takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, and mounted an armed 71-day occupation of the town of Wounded Knee, S.D., on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Wounded Knee was the scene of the last major conflict of the American Indian Wars, in which 350 Lakota men, women and children were massacred by US troops in 1890.

Dennis James Banks was born on the Leech Lake Reservation on April 12, 1937. He never knew his father. His mother abandoned him to his grandparents.


When he was 5, he was taken from his family and sent to a series of government schools for Indians that systematically denigrated his Ojibwa (Chippewa) culture, language, and identity. He ran away often, until, at 17, he returned to Leech Lake.

Unable to find work, he joined the US Air Force and was stationed in Japan, where he married a Japanese woman, had a child with her, and went absent without leave. Arrested and returned to the United States, he never saw his wife or child again. After being discharged, he moved to Minneapolis, drifted into crime, was arrested in a burglary, and went to jail for 2½ years.

Besides his wife and child in Japan, Mr. Banks had many children with other women. In addition to Banks Rama, he leaves 19 children, 11 with the surname Banks. Mr. Banks also leaves more than 100 grandchildren, Banks Rama said.