For thousands of years Native American belief has held that the sky is father and the Earth mother to all creation, and that everything is inherently born with a sacred right to exist on this planet in the eyes of the Great Spirit, creator of the universe. If there is anyone of our time who has come to symbolize the struggle for that very right for American Indians themselves, it would be Nowa Cumig, “One-Who-Stands-in-the-Center [-of-the-Universe]” — better known throughout the world as Dennis J. Banks.
His life-story reads like an abbreviated version of American Indian history: Banks was born on April 12, 1937, of the Anishinabe (Chippewa) tribe in Leech Lake, Minnesota; at the age of five he was sent to boarding schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which stripped him and many of his generation early on of knowledge of their native tongue. It was in the mid-’50s as a serviceman in the U.S. Air Force that he first struck up a relationship with Japan that remains strong to this day. Upon returning to the U.S., he drifted in and out of jobs, became an alcoholic and later landed in jail for two years. By the time he had gotten out, a sense of purpose had been injected into his life: defending his people.
In the revolutionary ’60s and ’70s, that meant confronting American bureaucratic and law-enforcement machines. Banks was among the founders in 1968 of the American Indian Movement, established to further Indian self-sufficiency and gain recognition of centuries-old treaty rights the American government has either violated or ignored. He was involved in a number of major protest actions: the occupation of San Francisco’s Alcatraz Island in 1969; the “Trail of Broken Treaties” march on Washington D.C. and subsequent takeover of BIA headquarters in 1972; and the 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in early 1973. One of Banks’ closest comrades, Leonard Peltier, was sentenced to two life-terms in connection with the now-famous shootout on the Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, in June 1975 that left two FBI agents and one Indian dead. Banks remains an outspoken advocate for the release of Peltier, who is going on 18 years behind bars despite concrete evidence of misconduct by the FBI in his case.
Banks may be more familiar to the Japanese nowadays due to the only biography of him ever published, the 1989 prize-winning “Seinaru Tamashii” (Sacred Soul) written in Japanese with author/activist Morita Yuri.
In recent years Banks has devoted much of his time to grass-roots organization for indigenous nations around the globe. He founded the “Sacred Run” to spread Native American philosophy to all corners of the planet through running events. Japan was the site of the 1988 Sacred Run; in 1995 Japan will again host the run, which will begin in Hokkaido in the north and Okinawa in the south and converge on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in time for events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War. Banks is also one organizer of a “summit of worldwide indigenous peoples” to be held in Okinawa that same summer. [Brian Covert:] Can you tell us what the Sacred Run group is all about and of some of its ongoing projects?
The run began as a result of a meeting that took place in 1977 in Vancouver, British Columbia. About 200 elders, chiefs and clan mothers came together, and we talked for the entire week on only one issue — the relationship that should exist between human beings and this planet that we call Mother Earth. There were many examples of how that relationship has gone bad, and how human beings have ruined that relationship: acid rain, pollution of the air, uranium mining, mill tailings left to blow into the sky and touch the water, contaminating everything.
And we also talked about how the relationship between human beings was coming apart: lack of respect for each other and not recognizing the qualities of each other. The conclusion came early: We must strengthen our own spiritual path, we must return to our ceremonies, strengthen the Pipe Ceremony, strengthen the Sun Dance, strengthen the Sweat Lodge Ceremony, the Naming Ceremony — every ceremony that we have, to go back and strengthen it. And we would have to strengthen ourselves first. That would be the first goal in working towards a relationship of harmony with Mother Earth again.
It was just a one-page summary. They gave it to me and asked me to send it to the press, to community newsletters, to Indian newspapers and radio stations around the country. But because I was involved with the final statement and it was so important, I felt we should perhaps do something else. What can I do to get this message out? It didn’t hit me right away, but came about five or six months later: running from village to village, bringing out the old tradition of running. Spiritual running. And we began with 500 miles that first year, and since then we have run over 34,000 miles in 15 years — not counting this year’s run [in 1993 in Australia and New Zealand].
We’ve run across the width of North America three times — the U.S. twice and Canada once — and its length once: North, South and Central America. Thirteen European countries. We’ve been in Japan already and we’re coming back in ’95. And we have started local 500-mile running events and again stress the same message: the need to return to ceremonies, the need to strengthen family relations. Also in our running message is a very strong position of saying “no” to alcohol and drugs.
We get calls constantly from parents and grandparents, concerned about people who go with us year after year. Some call and ask me to talk to a runner because he or she is falling off the wagon. They call to ask me to recommend their sons or daughters to schools. Would I write a letter? Also, we’ve been consultants to many athletic events around the country. We’ve become kind of experts on long-distance running. Our runners run distances of 25, 30, 40, 50 miles, 60, 70, 80, 90, a hundred miles at one time. We have runners who run 25 to 30 miles every day. In the beginning they came to us running 2 and 3 kilometers a day.
I stress “spiritual running” but some have gone on to compete in marathons — the Boston Marathon, Tokyo Marathon. So it just keeps gong on and on with our people. It’s a very, very small effort, as far as I’m concerned. People will ask: “Well, what do you think you’re accomplishing?” The question is not what I’ve accomplished. The question is: Am I still fulfilling those responsibilities I accepted? Will I take this message from village to village? And I said yes back in 1977. So my job is to get the runners to take that message to the next village. What the village does with it, that’s not our concern.
To me, there’s a little sadness there because we never know what does happen. But when remote villages start calling us, saying that we came through and were such an inspiration to one of their kids — could they come with us next year? — or that a lot of kids saw us and they now have a “No to Alcohol and Drugs” program, then I know that we’ve accomplished some secondary missions.
You spend a lot of time visiting this country. What kinds of affinities do you feel with the peoples of Japan, especially the Ainu of Hokkaido?
I always knew that American Indians were born with a birth mark on their lower back, a big bluish mark. I found that Japanese also have a similar mark on their lower back at birth. Some years went by and I began to dig more into that. There’s no explanation for it except, I felt, that people of the same stock have that when they’re born. So I think somehow that the Ainu, the Japanese, and Indian people are linked by virtue of that bluish mark.
With the Ainu, there is still some belief — I don’t know if it’s a practiced belief — of a relationship with Mother Earth. I’ve not studied Shinto or Buddhism, but there seems to be some separation between human beings and Earth, a philosophical separation. I have a hard time interpreting Shinto and Buddhism in that area, because I haven’t gone far enough into them. But I suspect I would eventually come across indigenous beliefs somewhere. Indigenous beliefs are still as they were thousands of years ago; that the Earth is the mother, that we are her children.
Japan was the place where you claim to have first begun thinking seriously about world peace. What inspired you?
I’ve known Japan since 1954, when I was part of the Occupation. I saw Hiroshima nine years after it had been bombed, and a lot of it was still in rubble. The rebuilding was underway, but there were a lot of blocked-off areas where [radioactive] contamination was still high.
But I also saw the rickshaws, I talked with and met the people that pulled the rickshaws. I am from a group of people that harvests wild rice, and the rice paddies of Japan, I waded in them! There were some by Yokota Air Base and I knew one of the farmers, and I’d spend almost every evening [out there in the paddies]. I got rice with them, two seasons I did that, and that’s how I met Japan in the ’50s. That’s what I fell in love with. In my mind, without being sentimental about it, that’s how I’ll always remember Japan.
But as the years went by and I came back — now I get back every six months or so — I see McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, fast food. I see people getting fatter. I’ve observed television, music, and the “American Dream.” It seems to me Japan began to chase that dream. They began their own “Tokyo Dream,” which was just patterned after the American Dream. And that’s what I feel very sad about: the Westernization of Japan. I’ve seen it happen with American Indians, how America tried to “Americanize” our people, tried to Westernize our thinking. But over the years, the old traditions snuck through all that bureaucracy, snuck through all the oppression, filtered through all of the massacres and hurt and pain, and stayed alive. And I see the same thing happening with Japan, and that’s why I feel I have to say something about it.
Young Japanese ask over and over again: What can you say? How can you help us? Not that American Indians have the answers to worldwide problems. It’s just that we’ve hung in there. And if there is a thread running through the Japanese culture that says “This can do it,” then they’re gonna have to search for that thread. But I’m here to say: If you don’t look for that thread, and if you continue to pursue the Tokyo or American Dream, then you’re gonna be starving for spiritual direction. You’re gonna be spiritually bankrupt. I don’t care what religion is on top or if there’s any on top — if you have no spiritual program, no spiritual platform, no spiritual direction, or if the essence of your livelihood is not based on spirituality, then you’re not you. You’re somebody else. And when you fall, you’re gonna fall hard and possibly never get up, because there’ll be no one to reach to for help.
I’ve been with AIM when the going got tough; I didn’t run from it, I stayed there, said, “This is how it’s gonna be, I’m tired of the abuse, we’re gonna stay here and fight it out.” But fighting it out not only meant physical confrontation, it also meant challenging some of the books found in our schools and saying, “No! We can’t let this anti-Indian stuff be taught to our children. We gotta get rid of this.” That’s what it also means. We gotta say “no” to John Wayne movies. We got to say “no” to the abuse of federal land policies. It means to think and see things differently — not to accept things differently, but to see things differently.
In your eyes, as one of the founding members of the American Indian Movement, how far was it willing to go to reach its goals?
When people suffer human rights violations, suffer starvation, suffer lack of civil rights, then those that stand up and demand change, those that say “I’ve had enough,” once they reach that emotional state of mind, they will stay until the war is over. They will take the battle to the courts, they will take up the battles of unemployment, drugs, alcohol, abuse of children, abuse of each other. They’ll stick around. And that’s what AIM has done.
Looking back, knowing now about the FBI’s operations to do away with AIM and other liberation movements outright, how did you manage to make it out alive?
I was on trial for the Wounded Knee occupation and the judge wanted to know why the U.S. marshals were executing some policies, why were they there; why were they using U.S. military machinery and personnel? And he wanted to know specifically what some of the marshals were doing. He asked one marshal, “What was your specific job at Wounded Knee?” And he said: “To bring down Dennis Banks.” The judge asked him, “What does that mean? Did it mean to injure him?” And he said: “No, it meant to bring him down.” And the judge says, “Did it mean to fire at him? To shoot him?” He said: “No, it meant to bring him down.” That’s the way he answered this federal judge; the judge was becoming angry, he says, “Did it mean to kill him?” He said: “No, it meant to bring him down.” And the judge became very angry: “Well, obviously you’ve missed, because there he sits right there.” And he says: “Yeah, but I tried.” And the judge says, “How many times did you try?” And he says: “Seven times.” Just a quick little exchange, but the judge was very smart. And the judge says, “You tried to bring him down seven times.” And he said “Yes,” very quietly. And the marshal looked over at me, and I’m looking at him: Here’s a man who tried to shoot me. Shot at me seven times. And the judge says, “No further questions.” The marshal gets up and stops at my table and says, “Dennis, I want you to know there’s no hard feelings. It was just a job.” Oh, man! Everybody in the courtroom heard that! And here I was looking at this guy: no emotions. Then they asked some other questions. I knew the press was gonna be outside waitin’, and I started to think, “What I am gonna say? What am I gonna say?” — to a man who was assigned to bring me down by the U.S. government.
So we went outside, and sure enough the press was there, we were swamped, and they ask: “What was your reaction?” I said, “Well, I was doing my job too.” And that’s what I was doing. That’s the only answer I could give.
How did I feel about him? ….I had no feelings for him. I wasn’t the one doing the shooting. It’s not me that’s gotta think about it, year after year. I’ve thought about Wayne [Colburn, then head of the U.S. Marshals Service]: What is he thinking when he goes to bed at night? “I tried to kill a human being.” And maybe he was assigned to bring me down, but the real question was: Could he do it? I don’t know. I think about him, but I don’t dwell on him. I just go on to the next page.
How did we manage to make it out alive? I don’t know. I saw the Black Panthers gettin’ killed. I saw the FBI and Chicago police — I mean, I didn’t see them but I lived through that — knockin’ down doors at three in the morning and shooting and killing people. The Black Panthers did what any other person who was suffering human rights abuses would have done. And in terms of engagement, the American Indian Movement did more, in terms of conflict. We called the bluff of the U.S. government at Wounded Knee, and for 71 days it was outright shooting every day. Millions of rounds of ammunition.
Three hundred FBI agents at Wounded Knee surrounded us, plus 90 U.S. marshals and all the “goons.” And they fired, they fired. You figure, two, three hundred people shooting at us all, I mean, there was like seven, eight hours, constant shooting, and not just sniping. It was just prrgghh-prrgghh-prrgghh-prrgghh — massive! And they were hiding behind their armored carriers, 35 of them. We were inside a ring of steel, surrounded…. I don’t know how we made it, perhaps it was the Great Spirit. If the Great Spirit sent me here to live a hundred years like I think I’m gonna live, then I have nothing to worry about for another 50 years [laughs].
During the Wounded Knee occupation, what were you thinking and feeling, knowing, as you reportedly said then, that “World War III could start right here”?
It was March 3rd , a guy who was head of security woke me up about 4:00 in the morning and said “D.J., there’s something out here we don’t understand. Could you get up?” Got up, went to the top of the hill. He said, “Listen.” Deep off, I could hear this droning, like there was engines way out in the distance. He says, “I don’t know what it is, D.J., but I’ve heard that noise before.” You could hear something, like stopping and cranking up. But there was a metal sound to it. It was very misty until about six or seven in the morning. And he was looking through binoculars, and he says, “Oh my God, now I know where I’ve heard that sound before — Vietnam.” And I looked through the binoculars and there they were: armored personnel carriers. They were moving — that’s what we heard, metal on metal. They would park for a while and then reposition themselves.
I wondered then — this was a combat situation — if they moved on us with all the federal force and power they could, that perhaps somebody across this world would say, “That’s it, these people aren’t human,” and that somebody would take this government on, and that it could possibly be from within. That’s what I was referring to — that kind of war would begin.
And when you look at it, the people of this country did begin to question the government. Young people were out by the hundreds of thousands, saying “No more war in Vietnam.” And the young reporters were questioning the Nixon administration. I mean these were young people, probing. And that’s what saved us; the people were already saying to the government: You’re not gonna shoot these people.
Around the second week of March, a Gallup poll asked: Do you agree with the Indians’ armed confrontation at Wounded Knee? And 72 percent answered “Yes.” That’s what stopped it. Nixon understood the polls. Years later I saw a letter that [Nixon aide John] Erlichman wrote, that every morning Nixon would say, “What’s going on at Wounded Knee?” Like he was pissed off that the Justice Department couldn’t settle it peacefully and was angry about the tanks and the military. And that was a basis for the indictments against us to be reduced; the federal judge threw out half the charges against Russell [Means] and I because there had been no presidential order to use military equipment. And he stated so in his opinions, in dismissing the charges against us. He said as long as he was a federal judge, he would never allow the U.S. military to enforce civilian rules.