Memories of a Grassroots Man
It has been heartwarming and heartbreaking, inspiring and saddening, all at the same time, to see all the tributes to and news coverage about Native American elder and activist Dennis Banks, in the wake of his passing on 29 October at age 80.
Banks is most well known for having co-founded the American Indian Movement in the late 1960s at a turbulent time in modern history and the many confrontations he led or joined in during that time, most notably the 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, USA. He was a warrior who stood up when his people most needed him, when the times most demanded it, and for that he will always be remembered and loved.
That was the public side of Dennis Banks. But there are many people who also got to know the private, personal side of Nowa Cumig — “One who stands at the center of the universe”, his native Anishinabe name — and I and my family were among those lucky ones. I would like to share just a few of those many memories with you, as part of my own grieving and honoring process for the spirit of this recently departed friend.
I first met Dennis Banks in late 1993 in Japan, not long after my wife Kazumi and I married, when I conducted an interview with him. I had known something of his past with the American Indian Movement, of course, but I also knew that he came to Japan often and I wanted to really explore all the background behind that and get a deep, substantive interview that no one else had ever gotten before — the definitive interview with Dennis Banks, I had hoped.
Thanks to a Japanese acquaintance, Yumiko Horikoshi, a local restaurant owner in Osaka who was well connected in social activist circles, I finally did get an interview set up with Dennis. He was up-front and frank from the outset: He told me before we even started the interview that the only reason he was agreeing to do this was because my wife was Japanese and it was thought that I might thus be more sensitive to certain issues because of that. Fair enough, I thought, and thanked Dennis for trusting me enough to spare some time for the interview.
The resulting interview turned out to be the best one I had ever done, mostly because Banks had really opened up and relaxed during the interview, letting me inside his parts of his life. He has a knack for telling a good story, and this came across clearly in the interview. I later had the interview published in Kyoto Journal magazine, and if I may be a bit immodest in saying so, to this day I haven’t found a better, more substantive interview that Dennis Banks has done with anybody else. You can see my interview with him here on the Archives page of this LifeTimes website.
Far from closing the door the moment the interview was over, however, Banks kept the door open, allowing my wife and I, without really imposing ourselves, to be accepted into the wider circle of what Dennis called his extended “Osaka family” in this part of Japan. A few months after our son Kenya was born the following year, we met up with Dennis again in Osaka and he took to our baby boy like a doting grandpa (see photo below). Far from the hard-edged warrior that most Americans, including Native Americans, knew of Dennis Banks in public, in private he was a real softy when it came to kids, especially the young ones. He was someone who treasured family ties deeply.
Dennis Banks with the author's family in Osaka, 1994. (photo by Yumiko Horikoshi)
I thought his own life experiences might have played a role in that. He was forcibly taken away at a young age — like a lot of Native Americans were at that time — and made to attend a Christian boarding school that was intended to weed out the Native in them and convert them into god-fearing charges of white American society. It is a shameful part of U.S. history that remains unhealed for many Native Americans today.
There was also the fact (little known to most Americans but familiar to many Japanese people) that Dennis Banks had a child of his own somewhere in Japan. While he was an infantryman still in his teens with the U.S. air force during the occupation of Japan in the 1950s, he and a young Japanese woman struck up a relationship and had a baby girl. They were married in a traditional Japanese ceremony, but the U.S. military didn’t recognize the marriage and soon shipped Banks back Stateside without his Japanese wife and baby. Apparently, he never saw either of them again in his lifetime.
So many memories come to mind when thinking of those days of starting a new family of my own back in Japan in the early 1990s.
Around the time when my wife was pregnant with our child, Dennis had been invited to the residence/studio of a respected Japanese “hair artist” who was famous for using his bald head to make artistic statements. Luck of all luck, the artist’s residence/studio was located in a suburban neighborhood of Nishinomiya — a few short blocks down the same narrow street where my wife and I then happened to be living in our first apartment as a married couple. So, we got to join the gathering too.
In my mind’s eye, I can still see Dennis Banks at that art studio surrounded that evening by a small group of Japanese guests, chanting a Native American honor song while the wife of the famous Japanese hair artist accompanied him on classical piano. I can see Dennis afterwards signing copies of his book — a Japanese-language autobiography titled Seinaru Tamashii [Sacred soul] that had been co-written with Japanese author/activist Yuri Morita — for guests at the studio.
One of those guests, a young Japanese woman who had already read the book, approached Dennis and started crying. Trying to console her, Dennis asked why the tears. “You are great,” the young woman said in English, “you are great.” Dennis politely shrugged it off. “I’m just a grassroots man, that’s all,” he replied. The crying young woman shook her head in disagreement. “You are great,” she insisted.
Just a grassroots man. That brief moment, for me, will always stand out as the true measure of greatness in a person, any person. When a public figure, who has a right to claim the mantle of achieving noteworthy things in a lifetime, humbly dismisses it and stands instead on the side of the ordinary, downtrodden people — that is the true measure of greatness, in my book. This is what has earned Dennis Banks the respect and admiration of his own people in the Native American community, and of many others around the world whose lives he has personally touched in some way.
Then, there is the memory I have of Dennis Banks leading a healing circle inside of a Native American tipi that had been erected on the asphalt parking lot of the Buddhist temple Mondo-Yakujin, not far from where we lived. My wife and I were allowed to join the gathering and brought along our baby boy, now about one year old.
Cone-shaped Native American tipis are not a common thing in Japan, mind you, and it didn’t take long for the local police to show up at the parking lot to investigate. Apparently one of the Japanese residents in the area had become alarmed at the suspicious sight of a tipi in their neighborhood and alerted the authorities. And understandably so: It was not long after the deadly 1995 sarin gas attack in Tokyo and the nation was still a bit on edge over that.
I explained to Dennis what was going on, as the Japanese members of our group assured the police officers that the harmless tipi was going to be held for a Native American healing ceremony and that the Buddhist temple officials had given permission for it to take place on their property. To our relief, the police left without incident and the healing ceremony commenced inside the tipi. We smoked and passed around the sacred pipe that Dennis had brought along. It was a simple but beautiful gathering to be part of.
My wife and I had to excuse ourselves from the healing circle early and rush home to feed our baby. We hoped that we might meet up with them again later at the tipi, but running late, realized there was little chance of that happening. So, my wife and I decided to take a longshot chance and go straight to the train station where we knew Dennis would be catching his train to Tokyo later that afternoon.
We caught the first train we could from our local station, uncertain if we could make it in time. But with luck on our side once again, we just happened to enter the same train car where Dennis and our Japanese friends were, having since finished with the tipi ceremony. Once inside the crowded train, my wife and I were met with the sight of a smiling Dennis Banks sitting on the train seat, not saying a word, but with his arms outstretched. He wanted to hold our baby. Who were we to refuse?
We immediately handed our baby boy over, of course, and Dennis delighted in bouncing him on his shoulder like any grandpa would. After a while, through the busy chatter of conversations inside the train and the noisy clackety-clack of the train on the rails, my wife and I became aware of Dennis murmuring — only he wasn’t talking, he was singing, and it was not in English. He was gently singing some song in his native Ojibwe language in our baby’s ear as he sat holding him. It was a deeply moving moment for us to witness.
Arriving at the packed Shin-Osaka station in Osaka, we had some extra time to spare before Dennis’s train arrived and went to a coffee shop to grab a bite to eat. I asked Dennis about the FBI in the U.S., which I knew had been gunning for Banks and other AIM activists back in the 1960s and 1970s under its COINTELPRO program. I asked Dennis if he thought he was still under surveillance by the FBI all these years later. He replied yes, he thought they were still watching him.
Soon it was time to go and we found ourselves at the platform, everybody exchanging goodbyes with Dennis as he got ready to board the bullet train to Tokyo. “Take care of the family,” Dennis told me as we hugged. “I will. Thanks, Dennis.”
Over the years that followed, we tried to catch Dennis Banks in Japan during one event of his or another, usually without much success. During a period when we were temporarily living in northern California in the early 2000s, though, we did manage to make phone contact with him once when he was on the west coast doing a gig. “How’s the little baby?” Dennis asked over the phone line, to which my wife could only laugh and say: “He’s not little anymore, Dennis. He’s growing up.”
We met Dennis Banks for the last time in November 2013, when he was doing an event in Kobe, not far from where we now live. During the program, he taught traditional Native American song and dance to the Japanese audience members, as he had done so many times before. And for the first time in more than two decades, when Dennis had held and sung to our infant son on that memorable day on the crowded train two decades before, we could meet up again. We got some nice photos of this reunion with Dennis and our son, now all grown up.
More recently, in late 2016, when Dennis was doing another event in our part of Japan, my wife and I discussed whether we would go or not. We really wanted to see Dennis again, that was for sure, but the admission fee for this particular event was unusually high and Dennis would be speaking and drumming for only a short time during the program. We decided to pass on that one, with the fervent hope we could catch up with him again at another future event in Japan.
Dennis had managed to build up a small but loyal band of Japanese followers over the many years he had been coming to Japan. Through Dennis, these followers learned how to build sweat lodges, erect tipis for ceremonies, hold running events for Mother Earth and organize sacred drumming circles. More than anyone else, Dennis helped to bring the cultures of Native Americans and Japanese closer together, which can only be a very positive thing.
At the same time, the name Dennis Banks, it seemed to me, had grown into something of an exotic brand name (with Dennis’s blessing, naturally), and there were otherwise well-meaning people in Japan making lots of money from that name. There is even a restaurant in Tokyo named and themed after him, which I dropped into a few years ago. It was good, but expensive.
In maintaining our family ties with Dennis Banks over the years, I was always mindful that we not cross the line between friend and groupie — not get too caught up, that is, in what I humorously called The Cult of Dennis. But that said, I remain grateful that he had opened up his extended family circle wide enough to accept my own new family in the making, many years ago. That meant more to me than any other family ever could, and I will always treasure the memories of those times.
While mourning over his recent passing, I came across on Facebook some beautiful words that Dennis had jotted down in Japan back in the late 1990s, around the time he had gotten to know our family. Dennis Banks was many things to many people, but I was warmly surprised to find after his passing that he had been something of a poet as well, just as I was at the time.
I close here, then, with Dennis’s own poignant words about meeting death, scribbled on a piece of paper in his unmistakable handwriting, and dated August 25, 1998 at the “Pony Farm” in Chiba Prefecture, eastern Japan, a place where I heard Dennis sometimes went and led ceremonies during his many visits to this country.
For me, this poem says it all, closing a treasured circle of beautiful family memories that will be forever young and new, thanks to the generous spirit of an old, dearly departed friend:
When it is our last ride
our last walk
our last run
We will think of the friends we met along the way…
We will also think of the distant places we have been…
And in those friends & places our minds will embrace
the moment with joy, beauty, and a great memory.
And on our last day we will pass into the Spirit
World, knowing we will meet again
And our friends and places will be one in spirit,
one in space.
What a glorious moment that will be.
NOWA CUMIG — DENNIS BANKS