Banks co-founded the American Indian Movement in Minneapolis in 1968, and he was a leader of AIM’s armed takeover of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 1973, in a protest against both the tribal and U.S. governments. Along with Russell Means, he was probably the most charismatic and visible of AIM’s leaders.
Banks, an epic womanizer who fathered numerous children with a variety of women, was involved in an affair with Anna Mae Aquash, who was murdered in 1975 — almost certainly because AIM members believed she was an FBI informant. The militant movement Banks helped create and lead in during the mayhem of the radical late 1960s and early 1970s unraveled in paranoia and violence, much of it internecine.
He spent several years as a fugitive after jumping bail on charges of riot and assault over an incident in Custer, South Dakota, in 1973. The Onondaga Nation gave him sanctuary. After his status was resolved, he had a bit of a career in movies, including an appearance in “Last of the Mohicans.”
The New York Times has a good story on his turbulent life here. Banks is also featured prominently in a New York Times Magazine feature on the murder of Anna Mae Aquash here. It’s hard to know what to make of Dennis Banks.
As the Times notes:
To admirers, Mr. Banks was a broad-chested champion of native pride. With dark, piercing eyes, high cheekbones, a jutting chin and long raven hair, he was a paladin who defied authority and, in an era crowded with civil rights protests, spoke for the nation’s oldest minority.
To his critics, including many American Indians, Mr. Banks was a self-promoter, grabbing headlines and becoming a darling of politically liberal Hollywood stars like Jane Fonda and Marlon Brando. His severest detractors, including law-enforcement officials, said he let followers risk injury and arrest while he jumped bail to avoid a long prison sentence and did not surrender for nearly a decade.
He lived a large and wild life.