Gale Courey Toensing
Dennis Banks, AIM co-founder

Dennis Banks on the AIM Era: 'I Regret That It Ended too Soon'

Gale Courey Toensing


Dennis Banks, the famous Ojibway co-founder of the American Indian Movement, teacher, lecturer, author and activist, is still going strong. A few days after he turned 80 on April 12, 2012, Banks received a Living Legends Award in Washington D.C. for his contributions as a co-founder of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and his ongoing commitment to the well being of the American Indian community, according to the Native News Network. Banks co-founded AIM in 1968 in Minnesota, and 43 years later, in February 2011 he initiate Longest Walk 3, a 5,400-mile walk/run/relay across America to raise awareness of the prevalence of diabetes among American Indians and how it can be overcome. Indian Country Today Media Network caught up with Banks at the National Indian Gaming Association’s annual Tradeshow & Convention in Phoenix at the end of March, where he participated in a sacred lands rally between manning a booth in the tradeshow that featured exquisite hand-picked wild rice and other products from his company Dennis Banks Natural Foods. (Related story: Video: Footage From Sacred Sites Rally in Arizona)

Could you tell me about the videos that you’re featured in?

We have two of them A Good Day to Die is about four years old and the latest one is about a year old and it’s called The Drum Will Never Stop.

A Good Day to Die covers my political life with AIM and The Drum covers my personal life and I think both of them are needed because I’ve traveled across this continent over the last 20 years – actually I’ve been travelling all my life – but in the last 20 years a lot of young people in high schools and colleges are asking, ‘What is AIM?’ A lot of them don’t know – and that’s not to say anything against them because if you don’t know something, you don’t know it. But they want to know and I think we have to let them know what happened in the ’60s and ’70s so they might get a better idea of what the current scene is today and why. I think that’s very important.

What do you think AIM’s place in history will be?

There’s always going to be a need for change whether it’s the American Indian Movement or Idle No More. Whether it’s now or 10 years from now, we’re always going to need those people to go out and confront the issues and take a stand even if we all become doctors and lawyers and senators and congressmen, even if we all become millionaires. There will still be a need to tell America that there are some very important contracts that were made in the 1700s and 1800s that deal with our land.

Are you referring to treaties?

Yes, and I think if we don’t remind America, if we don’t remind students in high schools and colleges of those obligations then pretty soon there will be no talk about them, no knowledge of them. People will say, ‘Treaties? What are they?’

You’ve been through so many experiences, co-founding AIM, participating in the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973, you went to jail …

Prison. I went to prison. Jail is where you go over the weekend. I was only in there for three years. Other people like Leonard Peltier have been in there for 38 years. [Leonard Peltier was convicted for the deaths of two FBI agents who died during a 1975 shoot-out on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He maintains he is innocent of the crime.] They’re not letting him out because he won’t say he feels remorse. Remorse for what? For something he didn’t do? Even the prosecutor admitted 16 years after Leonard was in prison that they don’t really know who killed those FBI agents. (Related story: Marching on Whiteclay: Oglala Lakota Activists, President Brewer and Supporters Continue Alcohol Protest)

Last time he was up for parole the FBI issued a really mean and vindictive statement that he would never be released …

It’s not up to the FBI whether he gets out or not. The FBI set up all the fabrications and lies that put him in prison. But I think in the end he’ll get out by presidential pardon whether it’s this president or the next.

How do you look back on all your experiences now?

I’m 80 years old and I feel good. I think the U.S. government is going to die in its own quagmire of brutality, its own quagmire of hatred and discrimination and the brutality that it has committed over the years and the honors given to people for committing those acts. For instance, for the massacre at Wounded Knee the U.S. government gave out Medals of Honor for killing women and children and that’s a disgraceful, disgraceful chapter and those are the kinds of thing that America is going to die from. Native people will still be here and the good people of America will be here too, but the federal system that has sponsored all these things, that’s endorsed them and still endorses them will die of all that stuff. (Related story: Wounded Knee: Still Wounded After All These Years)

When you talk about people going out and confronting issues, are you talking about direct action?

Oh, absolutely! I believe in negotiations and so on but sometimes people are not going to talk, they aren’t interested in diplomacy, they want a fight. Native people will succeed in their struggle – which has now been going on for almost 540 years. Someday the American people will come to their senses and boot out their government and start over again. And the Creator will cleanse this earth. That’s just the way it’s going to be.

Do you have any regrets about AIM and that whole AIM era?

I regret that it ended too soon.

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PL-WA State's picture
PL-WA State
Submitted by PL-WA State on
Thank you for a very good interview article with Dennis Banks, a wonderful leader and activist. I wish him many more journeys and opportunities to teach the young about our Native people in the U. S.

Red Bear's picture
Red Bear
Submitted by Red Bear on
on behalf of what my ancestors went through & died for. what the A.I.M. fought for & stood for the Wasicus are Ill with it. now they cant control what they started children are dying for it . the Wasicus Life is a Waste of a Human Being........... were the ones that are going to Heal with Grandmother Earth . She has already started........... im all for her do what she has too..............Rockchild

Scot Paul Sands's picture
Scot Paul Sands
Submitted by Scot Paul Sands on
I am from Walpole Island First Nation - Unceded Territory. I would like to say MIIGWETCH to Dennis Banks for all he has committed and sacrificed. I am one of theose people he speaks of; that doesn't want to talk, and is ready for the fight. We know from thousands of examples that these governments do not play fair, or fight fairly, even though the majority of the people are women and children that they have massacred. I still am ready for the FIGHT ..HOKA, .....RED POWER

she who has two lefts's picture
she who has two...
Submitted by she who has two... on
I admire Dennis Banks and what he has done for the Native people in this country. He is right that this government is not for the people, especially the Native Americans. I hope the young people on the reservations will follow the lead of the elders like Dennis Banks and Russell Means. Remember, the sqeaky wheel gets the attention. We do need more action.

Frank Two Hawks Neidenbach's picture
Frank Two Hawks...
Submitted by Frank Two Hawks... on
There are some out here Kola that are trying to keep AIM alive. The most important effort is to keep the Sacred Hoop of the People unbroken.

aiahninchi ohoyo's picture
aiahninchi ohoyo
Submitted by aiahninchi ohoyo on
it would seem to me that i remember a time over 30 something years ago when d b was not the shining star of the american indian movement.....

Wm. Fisher's picture
Wm. Fisher
Submitted by Wm. Fisher on

Karen M Rice's picture
Karen M Rice
Submitted by Karen M Rice on
AIM needs to rise again, Leonard Peltier needs go free, and Russell Means died too young!

aiahninchi ohoyo's picture
aiahninchi ohoyo
Submitted by aiahninchi ohoyo on
halito... i lived thru and came out the other side of the 1970's and i just want to tell you that dennis banks was not the 'golden boy' of the american indian movement this article paints him as...and i remember he was not always a 'good friend' to russell just fascinates me how time rounds off the hard edges of reality and glosses over the facts...i guess living not-so-nice-guys have more value than dead good guys...

Lenny Foster's picture
Lenny Foster
Submitted by Lenny Foster on
I rode into battle with Russell Means and Dennis Banks at Wounded Knee, South Dakota on Feb 27, 1973. I consider AIM as my comrades in the struggle for treaty rights, human rights and the freedom of worship and Dennis Banks is my leader. He asked me to walk point for him in our escape from Wounded Knee on May 7, 1973 and we never surrendered to the blue coats.

Ginger Rain's picture
Ginger Rain
Submitted by Ginger Rain on
Dennis Banks is one the most admirable men on the planet today. Thank you for speaking and continuing to make that stand. It is greatly appreciated.

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
We need AIM once again. They would have kept the "Redskins" controversy at the forefront and would certainly have the sale of Wounded Knee on television. Thanks for all you've done, Mr. Banks.

GJ's picture
Submitted by GJ on
Dennis, may your journey continue long and well. Continue spreading the word. I remember AIM and was a member .. I fought and fight to free Leonard. May the spirit be strong and free.

susan reece-meshekey's picture
susan reece-meshekey
Submitted by susan reece-meshekey on
to all due respect to mr.banks, "the movement" as it was put did not end it just changed faces. but the heart, remember the HEART, and spirit is still there. the battle is still raging, but raging in many ways more sinister than before. it for the most part is still very much "alive and well". the battle again, for the most part, is now within the halls of the u.s. congress and the courtroom. i know i am not the first to say or believe this fact. it is for that reason that @63 yrs. i am finishing my 2 degrees soon- then it's on to law school. the People may have to "wheel" me in but i will be there - Creator willing. we need an ARMY of attorney's to continue the fight. they said in a movie i once saw "we fight the fights that need fighting"! having faith that win, lose or draw "all is well" We live in Faith, We live in Hopes. i remain, In Peace. susan reece-meshekey Mohawk/Odawa nations. best wiishes to mr.banks and a big MEGWETCH!

Laurie Gilbert's picture
Laurie Gilbert
Submitted by Laurie Gilbert on
I belonged to NACHCA, an Australian Native American org. in the early 2000s. I am white but completely identify with the Indians' long struggle. last week in my Sociology class I gave a talk on the original Wounded Knee massacre and the '73 take- over of the site by AIM and co. The talk was wonderfully received, with many questions asked. I am now working on the story of Leonard Peltier, the mining companies taking over of Indian lands and any other issue I can think of to demonstrate the US government's total disregard of Indian rights. Even in Australia we recognise the beauty of Indian lore and spirituality and I will keep on spreading the word for the rest of my life ( I'm 70 years old and female). Black Elk is the person I want most to live up to. Thank you for keeping the Indians' problems at the forefront, Many Regards, Laurie Gilnbert