Dennis Banks

Dennis Banks, who was one of the founders of the American Indian Movement, came to speak at the University of Oregon. His appearance was part of a day long series of events dealing with the problem of diabetes in our society. Banks has for years been working to draw attention to the epidemic of diabetes in Native American communities. However, he also used the occasion to talk about his political experiences.

Banks began by talking about his childhood. An Anishinaabe, he was born in the Leech Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota in 1937. When he was four years old, he and his sister were taken away from their parents, and sent to a boarding school with other Indian children. They were not allowed to speak their languages and practice their customs. The children were only taught to do manual labor. This was part of a U.S. government program to “kill the Indian, save the man”. The aim was to destroy the cultures and identities of Native Americans. This was a form of genocide. Interestingly, the U.S. was doing this at the same time it was fighting the Nazis in Europe.

According to Banks, beatings were common at the boarding schools he was sent to. He ran away repeatedly. He escaped for the last time when he was fifteen. He felt bitter that his mother did not seem to write to him while he was in the schools. Three years ago, some people were doing a documentary about him. They went to an office in Kansas City where there are records of these schools. There, they found packets of letters that his mother had written him.

Banks founded one of the first AIM chapters in Minneapolis in 1968. He had observed the civil rights and anti-war movements, and he came to believe that a similar movement was needed to advocate for the rights of Native Americans. In 1973, AIM occupied Wounded Knee, South Dakota for seventy-one days to protest rampant corruption on the PIne Ridge Indian Reservation. (Banks prefers to say that they “secured” the town.) Afterwards Banks and Russell Means were charged with 16 felony counts and faced two hundred years in prison. Their trial lasted nine months. At one point an FBI agent testified, “My job was to bring down Dennis Banks.” As he was leaving, he said to Banks, “I’m sorry, Mr. Banks. It was my job.” The government prosecutors repeatedly introduced fabricated evidence. Eventually, the judge threw out all the charges.

The second half of Banks’s talk was devoted to the problem of diabetes. He blamed it on the diet of most Americans. He pointed to the example of the Pimas, whose lands are bisected by the U.S.-Mexican border. The rate of diabetes among Pimas north of the border was far higher than among those in Mexico, even though the two groups are genetically identical. Banks believes that this is because the Pimas in the U.S. have adopted the U.S. diet of the twentieth century, meaning more fat and less starch and fiber. Oddly, Banks made it sound as though he has been fighting the medical establishment on this issue, even though the recommendations he made (eat more vegetables, get more exercise) are often made by doctors.

Banks’s talk went a bit long. In his discussion of diabetes, he made many of the same points over and over again. I have to admit, I became a bit fidgety towards the end. Nevertheless, Banks is a powerful and affecting speaker who has interesting and important things to say.

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