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The Longest Walk of Dennis Banks
Legendary Native American activist comes through town to raise awareness of domestic violence and substance abuse
Dennis Banks

CURIOUSLY, of all the civil rights activism in the 1960s and '70s, perhaps the least-remembered and least-taught in our schools is the struggle for the civil rights of Native Americans.

Which, given the shameful history of our country’s treatment of them, is probably par for the course.

One of the seminal figures in Native American civil rights is Dennis Banks, of the Ojibwa/Anishinaabe people of Minnesota. Co-founder of the American Indian Movement (AIM), Banks was beside AIM leader Russell Means during the Sioux tribe’s 1973 armed standoff with the U.S. government at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

(Movie fans will know both Banks and Means from their later roles in the 1992 film Last of the Mohicans.)

Outcry over corruption at the Pine Ridge Reservation erupted into open defiance as AIM decided to take over the nearby town of Wounded Knee, which has great symbolic value to American Indians as the site of an 1890 massacre by the U.S. Army.

The 1973 standoff ended two months after it began, with several dead from gunfire. Means and Banks faced over 200 years plus life in prison each, but the cases against them were thrown out due to prosecutorial misconduct.

Now 79, Banks has spent the last decade going on coast-to-coast “Longest Walks” across the country, raising awareness for causes such as diabetes on reservations and equal treatment for Native people.

This year’s Longest Walk is dedicated to fighting domestic and substance abuse in the wake of last year’s savage murder of Banks’s 31-year-old granddaughter, Rose Downwind, by her ex-boyfriend.

Accompanied by friends, colleagues, and extended family, the still-spry Banks—who fights his own diabetes purely by exercise and managing his diet—was hosted in the Savannah area by the folks at the farm-to-table Green Bridge Farm in Effingham County, where we spoke with him.

This is your eighth Longest Walk. But the cause this year is the closest to your heart and home.

I was at a reservation in Montana on a Longest Walk, talking to people about diabetes. I got to talking to one woman and she said, “There’s something worse going on up here. Everyone’s making meth.” She said, “See that house over there? And there? And there? They’re all cooking meth.”

So I initially decided to just do this walk on drug abuse.

And then something truly, unimaginably horrible happened.

Yes. My granddaughter was killed, strangled by her boyfriend. He strangled her, then mutilated her body.

We have surveillance video of him buying about 200 Styrofoam plates. He and two other guys moved her body. They had a five-gallon can of gas. They dug a shallow grave, put her in, crushed up all the Styrofoam plates, poured the gas in and set it on fire, and buried her.

It was hard for me to accept. She went missing in October. They found her in December of last year.

I haven’t been to the hearings or to the arraignment. I didn’t want to see him. I was afraid of what I might do. I didn’t want to go in the state of mind I was in.

For every instance of domestic violence, the in-laws, the children, extended families, they all feel it. Everyone is affected.

My daughter is the one who feels it the most. She’ll sometimes come in my room and wake me and say “Dad, I just had a nightmare about Rose.” Though sometimes she’ll come in and say, “Dad, I just had a good dream about Rose.”

Domestic violence is on the rise in Native homes. I could never imagine Crazy Horse going home and beating up his wife.

Safe to assume your granddaughter’s murderer was a drug abuser?

Yes. It’s ironic that he was actually a caregiver. He took care of eight seniors. He would get the prescriptions for them and count out how much they needed every day. And then he’d keep the rest. A lot of Oxycontin, opiates. He was also selling. He was a user and a seller.

Drug abuse is an epidemic everywhere, on and off the reservation. I was going to confine this walk mostly to reservations. But people would come visit us, white people from around the area, and they’d say, “This is hurting us as well.”

Recovery is the biggest issue. A few days ago we were in Florida and a cop said, “I’m not arresting any more drug addicts until you show me what we’re going to do about this. You want to send them to prison? For what? These guys are helpless.”

There are 30,000 suicides every year and 8,000 are combat veterans. They’re all drugged up. They get their prescriptions from the Veterans Administration. They use opiates, all kinds of heroin, laced with prescription drugs.

We go to a lot of towns where there’s no Safe Houses at all. If a young woman is getting beat up, where can she go? If a child is abused in the home, where can they run to?

Shame is what keeps the victim from telling others what happened. We have hard data, anonymous surveys.

One survey we did, a woman identified four generations of violence in her family. A boy told us he started using drugs at six years old on the reservation.

Is the breakup of traditional Native American society mostly to blame?

Our societies have traditionally been matriarchal. The clan mothers are in charge. Clan mothers select the chief. The chief can’t go against the clan mothers on important issues. If they do, there is a ceremony called “dehorning.” You symbolically take the chief’s hat off.

They’re also banished from the tribe. You aren’t to speak his name again. He becomes a nonexistent person. He can live out there in white society anyway he wants to. But when he goes back to the territory he’s shunned.

It’s become much more patriarchal now. The Europeans when they came, looked for leadership in the Native community assuming they were men. They said, well there’s a Chief here. Not realizing that the Chief has someone else to answer to.

All these treaties, look at all the signatures. They’re all made by men.

Does it really make a difference to Native Americans who’s in charge in Washington?

You know who did the best job for Native people? President Nixon. Nixon was the only sitting president who gave land back to our people. He gave land back to the Taos Pueblo, gave land back to the Menominee in Wisconsin, gave land back to the Klamath in Oregon. He was a friend of Native Americans.

And ironically, Nixon was president during the Wounded Knee incident.

The occupation began Feb. 27, 1973. Hostilities, as they say, broke out the same night. We put up roadblocks to prevent anybody from coming into Wounded Knee. We said anybody that wants to leave can leave. But if they want to get back in they have to have one of our flags, the Wounded Knee flag.

We had a meeting that night. We heard some noise, and someone rushed in saying, “They’re shooting at us! What do we do?”

Russell Means just turned and said, “Fire back! Return fire.” That was our automatic response.

That was Day One. Seventy-one days we were there. We were surrounded by armored personnel carriers filled with FBI agents, 300 surrounding Wounded Knee, along with 90 U.S. Marshals. Plus any number of local police who came along just to have a chance to shoot some Indians.

The FBI called a meeting at one of the neutral roadblocks. They said, “We’re going to end this today. Sometime after 6 p.m. we’re going to lay down a blanket of tear gas and then come in with force.”

They said if we wanted to send out the women and children they’d have school buses waiting to transport them safely back to Pine Ridge.

Russ told us the news. And we responded, “We always say we’re going to die out here. Maybe this is the day.”

One older woman, named Nellie Red Owl, she was about five-foot-one and had a little .22. She stood up and said, “I came here to fight. I didn’t come here to leave.”

Another lady, she had come with her nine-year-old son. She had told him they might both die there together. She said she told him, “Today might be that day.”

With all these strong women supporting us, how could we give up?

But what if the women had said, “Put down your guns and surrender?” Would you have taken their advice?

(short pause) .... No.

There were some white guys there, with a group called Vietnam Veterans Against the War. They knew explosives, and had brought some in with them.

We were in two-way radio contact with the FBI. We said, we’re going to give you a little demonstration of what’s in store for you if you come for us.

We set off about six packets of explosives. Everybody hit the ground. I thought, “Whoa, this is it.”

We found out later that during the standoff, Nixon’s Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman had told the President about the FBI’s plan to go in with overwhelming force.

We learned that the President stood up, very angry, and said, “You mean to tell me a ragtag band of Indians has you buffaloed out there and you guys can’t end this? So now you want me to sign an order for their death warrants? It’s going to be a massacre. Not on my watch! Go back to the Justice Department and come up with a plan that ends in peace.”

They did, and finally the head of the U.S. Marshals announced that there would be no attempt to retake Wounded Knee, and that was that.

You remained friends with Russell Means for the rest of his days.

Oh yeah, we stayed in touch. I was with Russ when he died a few years ago. And we did Last of the Mohicans together.

How does it feel to have been through all that and decades later be a movie star? That's pretty great, right?

It's only great because I'm alive! (laughs)

What are the bigger lessons of what you and Russell and AIM did in 1973?

The U.S. government did change a lot of major policy. New laws gave Indian people self-determination rights, including the right to subcontract with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. We could use Indian architects, Indian construction companies.

But overpowering all of it today is the suicide rate of young Native men and women. The earliest age we’re finding right now is nine years old. They’ve been mistreated at home, mistreated in the schools, mistreated by poverty conditions.

Pine Ridge sits on Highway 18, and that’s a cartel route for pushing the drugs through South Dakota into Minnesota. The cartel is very big and out of control.

To this day Pine Ridge is still one of the poorest reservations in the country. Not even the casino helps. Some tribes even with casinos just break even. And when you break even in the casino business, that means you lose! (laughs) You can break even in other businesses, but with casinos it’s not supposed to work that way.

You’ve got Trump saying to build a wall between us and Mexico. But there are tribal people who have families living on both sides of that border. First cousins.

Native people are generally against any kind of wall. We sometimes joke that we ought to build a wall all along the Eastern coast so no more Pilgrims can come in!

Do Native Americans generally want to see the reservations dismantled?

The goal is to make them serve Native people better. The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled we have a right to hunt and fish on and off the reservation, on ancestral land. And they ruled that not only do we have the right to be in the gaming industry, but we have a right to build the casinos.

So we have a bigger piece of the pie than we had before. The stage was set during the hectic ‘60s and ‘70s that paved the way for big policy changes.

If you had a magic wand, you really wouldn’t make reservations vanish?

No. Without our land we have no ties to our spiritual beliefs. The land is everything.