One Step Ahead of the Law, Indian Activist Dennis Banks Organizes a 54-Day Footrace
Now 51, Banks is still quick on his feet. The longtime Indian activist is currently organizing a 54-day cross-continental relay honoring the late Olympic champion Jim Thorpe. The 3,900-mile trek, which will culminate in an international lacrosse competition and Indian powwow in Los Angeles a week before the summer Olympics, "is a spiritual run," he says solemnly. "It will help us remember the old ways and the responsibilities that were given to us as Indian people by the Creator." On May 28 Banks will run the first three-mile leg of the marathon on the Onondaga Indian reservation near Syracuse, N.Y. But he will go no farther than the edge of the reservation, for fear of arrest by federal agents.
Although he eventually surrendered and was acquitted of criminal charges at Wounded Knee, Banks was later convicted of riot and assault charges after another demonstration in Custer, S.Dak. In 1975 he jumped bail and has been on the lam ever since. Last year he found sanctuary at the Onondaga-based Haudenosaunee Indian nation, and tribal leaders there have vowed to protect him by force, if necessary, from the threat of arrest.
On the reservation Banks lives in a weather-beaten hillside cabin with an outhouse in back and gets his water from a well two miles away. A hulking man with waist-length hair and a craggy face, he is slow to warm to strangers, but leaves his door unlatched to an unending stream of neighbors and well-wishers. His home, now headquarters for the Jim Thorpe Longest Run, is also a hangout for teenage members of the reservation running team that Banks has coached for the past year.
To many Indians, Banks seems more a victim than a villain. A Chippewa, born on Minnesota's Leech Lake Reservation, he left home at age 5 to attend a succession of Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools. After more than five years with the Air Force in the Far East, he returned to Minnesota in 1958 and became a drifter, unable to find a job. "I was heading down a road that was filled with wine, whiskey and booze," says Banks. "Then I landed in prison." Jailed for burglarizing a grocery store, he watched his white partner-in-crime escape with light probation while he served "two years, seven months and 18 days." Released in 1968, Banks swore off alcohol and, with fellow ex-con Clyde Bellecourt, founded the radical American Indian Movement (AIM).
Banks took part in all of AIM'S most controversial activities, including the occupation of Alcatraz in 1969 and the 1972 takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington. Although noted for its efforts to improve Indian living conditions, AIM quickly became a target of federal agents trying to keep a rein on dissent. After a series of increasingly violent clashes between Indian demonstrators and lawmen in South Dakota in early 1973, about 200 armed supporters of AIM barricaded themselves in the town of Wounded Knee, site of an 1890 massacre of Sioux Indians by a U.S. cavalry unit. "We had reached a point where enough was enough," says Banks. "It was time for our warriors to stand up as warriors again."
After the dust settled from Wounded Knee, which left two Indians dead and one federal agent seriously wounded, Banks soon locked horns with another powerful enemy. In 1974 he charged in a tribal court that William Janklow, then a Republican candidate for attorney general of South Dakota, should have been prosecuted for the rape of an Indian teenager seven years earlier. Janklow won his election despite the messy publicity and was subsequently vindicated by an FBI investigation. Then, in 1975, Janklow turned the tables and prosecuted Banks for his role in demonstrations to protest police handling of the stabbing death of an Indian youth in Custer, S.Dak.
Facing a possible 15-year sentence for the riot and assault conviction, Banks fled to California, where he argued that he risked assassination if he turned himself over to South Dakota police. Governor Jerry Brown decided not to extradite Banks, in part because of an inflammatory statement Janklow had made about the need to confront AIM activists with a show of force. ("Put a bullet in a guy's head," Janklow had said, "and he won't bother you anymore.") As attorney general, Janklow publicly boasted that he offered accused felons a choice between being prosecuted or moving to California. Then, in 1978, he was elected governor. Banks at that time was serving as chancellor of tiny Deganawidah-Quetzalcoatl University in Davis, Calif. But when Brown was succeeded as California governor in 1983 by conservative Republican George Deukmejian, police appeared on Banks' doorstep on Inauguration Day with a warrant for his arrest. Anticipating the move, Banks had already left for New York State.
The 7,300-acre reservation where he now makes his home is a sparsely populated area of rolling hills. Although most of the Indians who live there work and shop in nearby Syracuse, they have maintained a closed and fiercely independent society. They do not consider themselves U.S. citizens, and some have even traveled abroad using a Haudenosaunee passport. Haudenosaunee chiefs cite a 200-year-old treaty with the U.S. government under President George Washington as proof of their sovereign status. "If you can't keep George Washington's word," Chief Oren Lyons says bluntly, "I don't know whose word you can keep."
Federal marshals appeared on the reservation several months ago, armed with a newly issued U.S. indictment against Banks for unlawful flight to avoid incarceration. They were turned away by chiefs who politely told them they had no jurisdiction on Haudenosaunee land. With Banks effectively cornered, however, federal officials now appear content to play a waiting game while avoiding an embarrassing and possibly bloody confrontation. Although Banks has offered to do his time in a New York prison and claims he is confident his conviction would eventually be overturned, Janklow remains insistent that the fugitive be returned to South Dakota.
Alone on a cool spring night, with his pregnant wife, Kamook, 29 (whom he met at an AIM demonstration in 1972), and their three young daughters off seeing a movie in Syracuse, Banks seems brooding and restless. "As long as I'm alive, the people who are hounding me will not rest," he says. "They can't rest because I'm like a nightmare to the whole judicial system." He puffs his corncob pipe and settles into a quiet, almost trancelike state. The peace is only an illusion, however. Even in quiet moments like this, Dennis Banks is always looking over his shoulder.