Native American leader, teacher, lecturer, activist and author, Dennis Banks is an Anishinabe born on Leech Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota. In 1968 he co-founded the American Indian Movement (AIM), and establishing it to protect the traditional ways of Indian people and to engage in legal cases protecting treaty rights of Natives such as hunting and fishing, trapping, wild riceing.
AIM also spearheaded the move on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1973 to oust corruption and the U.S. appointed chairman. These activities led to the occupation of Wounded Knee and a siege of 71 days which received national attention. Banks was the principal negotiator and leader of the Wounded Knee forces. For more info on his extraordinary career, see his Web Biography.
Nancho : Let's start off with a brief history of AIM and its major activities?
Dennis Banks: Well, AIM began in 1968 - July 28th, 1968 - in Minneapolis. Our first priority in organizing was to halt the police brutality in Minneapolis, and also to develop plans for housing for Indian people who were coming off the reservations as, as well as developing employment programs for those who were in transit between the reservations and the city - also permanent employment opportunities. Those were some of the main items on our agenda as we began the American Indian Movement in 1968.
Almost immediately we began - I'd say within the first few weeks of our birth - we, we included the, two attorneys who began examining our, our legal rights on reservations with regards to various treaties - treaty rights to hunting, treaty rights to fishing, treaty rights to trapping, and even harvesting wild rice in Minnesota. These rights were guaranteed by at least four different and separate treaties that the Chippewas signed with the United States Government. And then from there we included treaty rights as our main objective within the American Indian. So we organized in Minneapolis and then expanded to St. Paul and then to Cleveland and to Chicago and Milwaukee and then westward to Colorada, to Denver, San Francisco, we opened up a small chapter in Los Angeles, then in the Northwest in Seattle and Olympia, Tacoma. So we expanded very fast in the early part of 1968, '69 and '70 in treaty rights. And then the land rights - rights that we had on land, of course that went to grazing, timber, water rights, other rights that were affected and included in the treaties now were coming into play with our legal people in the movement. And we just began to bring case after case.
Then in 1972 we - the American Indian Movement - joined in with eight other national organizations and created a caravan of Indians going across this country, going across America and called it a "Trail of Broken Treaties".
That of course ended with the takeover of the BIA [U.S. Government's Bureau of Indian Affairs] because the Department of Interior had ordered all of the other federal agencies not deal with us, not to help us, not to assist us, not to even meet with us. And so because of that the occupation of the BIA building took place. And then in 1973 we again found ourselves being confronted on the Pine Ridge Reservation at Wounded Knee. And it ended up with the siege at Wounded Knee where for 71 days we were surrounded by federal marshals and FBI agents and goons of Dick Wilson [BIA Commissioner]. And for 71 days we felt a lot of freedom there.
After the occupation ended at Wounded Knee, the American Indian Movement formed the International Indian Treaty Council. This first gathering brought together representatives from 97 different tribes. And we met at Standing Rock reservation in South Dakota and applied shortly thereafter for what is called "non-governmental organizational status" with the United Nations. And the purpose, the primary purpose for the new organization, of which AIM is the parent to, was to develop forums at the national and international level, and to address some of the major concerns in South, Central and North America with Indian tribes. This so far has worked for us. We have been able to use the United Nations status that we have now, which is NGO status, and visit other NGO groups in South America and Central America, and use that status with the U.N. to talk to other heads of states in other countries.
In your relationships with the government you've used physical confrontation, political organizing, spiritual ceremonials and now literature. What do you see as really effective paths for joint action in the future?
DB: Well, I think that as I get older certainly diplomacy is always the best way to try to bring about results and bring about understandings between two people or two organizations or two nations or two opposing forces. And I would I would recommend that way. But I think that when, when policies are very restrictive and will not allow even negotiations to take place, then I think the option must be with those advocates for social change. But I would use the, I'd use the, the community in terms of what they want and what their demands are in pushing for change.
Now a good case of that is in Oglala right now - Oglala, South Dakota - where our water is being contaminated by uranium mill tailings almost 70 miles away. Mill tailings at Edgemont, South Dakota, are seeping into what is called the Oglala aquifer and the aquifer brings the water right to our wells. And it's all contaminated and we can't even drink the water. So we - and I say "we" because I live there - and we demanded that the mill tailings, you know, be removed, be stored or that the company was responsible for the wild dumping of these mill tailings be held responsible to come and clean, that they be ordered to clean up this environmental hazard that they left there. Because in Oglala we are having the highest incidence of birth defects in the nation. Our, our community is like a 1,800 people and birth defects are...almost every child born there has some kind of birth defect.
It's a terrible shame so I think the community deserves the right to use any option to bring about justice. And when we see all our children being born this way because of uranium mill tailings 70 miles away and no one is being held responsible for it - well, those are actual crimes against humanity. Somebody has to be held responsible for it. And when no one is, then I think the community or a group of people have a right to redress themselves anyway that they can.
In these activities you've formed a common bond and some solidarity with tribes up and down the length of North and South America. Is there some reaching out to indigenous peoples in other parts of the world that are facing similar...
DB: Oh, yes. We've, we've made coalitions right now with people, aborigines in Australia and New Zealand. We've, we've made contacts with the Shingo tribes down in Brazil, Raoni's people. We've made friends and coalitions with Laplanders up in Norway. And there, there's a terrible consequence as a result of the Chernobyl accident up there. It is tragic what's going on up there. All the caribou are dead, contaminated, nothing's growing anymore, distortions in nature are happening up there, funny looking trees - it's really...it's bad. And this, and this...the evidence is only two, two years old now. It's coming up in mutations of life, in distortions of life and just terrible consequences as a result of, of the nuclear accident up there.
But we've made coalitions, friends, I mean, with the Esquimo's of course. We're there with them. This is one of the greatest coalitions that we're putting together. And in the next few weeks we'll be talking with the Ainu in northern Japan. And I think what we're going to be coming to - it'll end up like a tribunal, a worldwide tribunal, that the aborigines, that the original people of each earth's area - like the American Indians in North America, South America, Central America, the native peoples in Japan, tribal people in Asia are still in a sense, they are still environmentalists. And I think that our beliefs, at least the beliefs that I have in the Earth are still being followed.
And I think we have some answers to some of the major questions that are being posed regarding nuclear development. We of course have already taken the position that nuclear development cannot be controlled, that the uranium can never be controlled. There's always radioactivity and there's always the major chance that a nuclear facility will explode - not explode in terms of nuclear explosion, but explode from other malfunctions of the facility itself and cause great damage to this Earth.
I believe and I would predict that the next and probably the deadliest accident of all will happen here in Japan. I believe that because of - first of all I've been here for, three separate times and I know that there's a lot of earthquakes happening here. And of all places to have nuclear facilities it's most insane near an earthquake zone - and Japan is a zone where earthquakes happen all the time. So I would predict that the world's worst nuclear accident will happen here in Japan. And the people that will suffer from it will be not only Japanese. If you follow the winds, if you follow the currents of the sea, it'll affect people in Washington state, Oregon, California, United States, Alaska. It'll affect people in Russia, in Korea, Manchuria and everything that's in that area. The currents will take the contamination to the fishes, to the whales, to the salmon, to the tuna - it'll be major. I mean, you don't have to be a Jeanne Dixon to predict that. You can just see it coming.
So I think that the people that we've been talking to, if people, if governments would listen to us, I think we could find, find a solution to nuclear development and that, of course, is we're going to have ease out of it. And I don't mean ease out of it like a "20-year ease out phase", I mean easing out of it like tomorrow morning or yesterday morning or last night.
Food, every bit of food right now that we eat has somehow been touched with radioactivity. I'm an alcohol and drug counseler, and all my life - well, I've used alcohol during my early years, but for the last 19 years I've been living a life of sobriety, telling people not to drink beer - and now I find in some areas of this country that beer is safer than water. And to me that's, that's a very ironic statement for me to make - when beer is safer than water.
This tribunal that you're trying to set up, how far along is it and how will it use the media?
DB: We did some initial planning in the United States before we came out, just pre-pre-planning, kicking the idea around. And then Vernon Belcord went to Australia and visited the aborigines down there and also in New Zealand, came back with a favorable response to the idea. Floyd Westerman was in Central America, South America rather. He was in Brazil and Chile, came back and said that the people down there would send delegations to a tribunal We've talked to people in the Laplanders in Norway and they definitely want to come and make a presentation over there. I've seen some slides of some animals up there, of caribou that've been born and it's ugly.
But I think that the idea would result in three things. One of them would be we'd ask the United Nations to create an environmental security commission. Not, we realize that the United Nations actions are non-binding on the member states. We know that. But I think it would develop an international forum for three things to happen.
One would be to develop an international code on, on use of and protection of water - which would mean surface water, subsurface water, fresh water, salt water and any ocean, lake, river, stream, and the rain. If we set standards on the use and protection of water then no nuclear facility would be able to use water the way they use it now. And I have seen how they are using water. I have not been inside of a nuclear facility, but I've been at them and I've seen the cooling system and how it works. The water is no good once it goes into the facility. It's not good for anything. It's just dead, radioactive, a very deadly element.
Another would be the establishment of a commission for the use of and protection of the Earth's soil. This of course is protection for the soils that grow our food.
The third one would be for the establishment of a commission for the use and protection of the air.
So those three commissions established underneath an environmental security commission I think could set the stage to develop real strict, rigid, enforcable standards for the air, for the water, for the soil. And we'd have to take those ideas to every village in this world, in every country and ask people to demand that each government enact those kinds of safeguards for the environment. Then nothing could get by and nuclear facilities would of course also have to shut down.
The nuclear development forces in the world use the term "low level waste". And there's another phrase that is used and that's "acceptable levels of..." To me there's no acceptable level of radioactivity that is safe. There's no such thing as "low level" radioactive waste. It'll kill. Any level of radioactivity will eventually cause cancer. It's becoming a very unsafe world and that's what scares me. It doesn't scare me for me because in 40 years or 50 years I'll be gone. But it scares me to think that we are leaving our children a future that is going to be filled with death and disaster.