The man who spoke at an Ezra Stiles Master’s Tea on Wednesday was once wanted asa terrorist by the FBI. But he is also an activist for American Indian rights.
Dennis Banks, co-founder of the American Indian Movement, spoke to an audience of about 50 about the AIM’s fight with the U.S. government for Native American rights. He started the talk discussing the high rate of diabetes among Native Americans, attributing its prevalence to the “American lifestyle.” And after discussing the AIM’s past political struggles, Banks addressed current problems facing Native Americans, including corruption on reservations.
“The AIM exploded onto the scene in 1968 because of the immense anger among the Native American people,” Banks said. “Why were we angry? We were angry because racism was so rampant in America. All the cruel, racist policies of the government combined to give AIM its strength.”
Banks recounted stories of his childhood in Minnesota, wheregovernment authorities took him from his mother and placed him in a boarding school for six years, allowing him no contact with his home. At the school, he —and the 70,000 to 100,000 other American Indian children who were placed in similar schools — were not allowed to speak their native languages or to discuss their culture in any way. Some children even died from beatings at these schools, Banks said, and were buried nearby.
“The school crushed the Indian-ness in me,” he said.
When he came back home after attending school, Banks said he did not believe his mother when she said she had tried to contact him and get him home. But later, when some of his fellow activists in the AIM were making a documentary about him — a film called “A Good Day to Die,” which will be screened at the Whitney Humanities Center on Thursday — they unearthed the letters his mother had written to him and the authorities.
Anger at the schools was only amplified later by other misrepresentations and injustices, Banks said. In the 1970s, Banks was arrested and charged with 16 felony counts, including incitement to riot and assault at various AIM demonstrations. In the end, he won the case, but Banks said the judge — whom Banks called the most racist of all those involved in the case — said it was a bad year for justice. The judge and the prosecution were eventually given medals for meritorious service by the American government, he said.
Eventually, as the AIM grew, Banks and co-founder Russell Means were portrayed by the media as the stars of the movement. But the credit should not necessarily have gone to them, he said.
“The real strength of AIM did not lie in its male leadership but in the many mothers, sisters and daughters who fought with or without their men,” Banks said.
Among the members of the audience at Wednesday’s Tea was Banks’ daughter, Tashina, 36, who co-produced “A Good Day to Die.”
“In my interactions with people who were there both before and after AIM, I understand how great a difference AIM actually brought about in the lives of Native Americans,” she said. “AIM made it okay to be Indian. It restored our pride.”
Talking about the current issues facing Native Americans, Banks talked about rampant corruption that still exists on the reservations. Giving money for votes in elections there, he said, is still not a crime.
Before the Master’s Tea, Banks spoke to students in “Introduction to American Indian History,” many of whom attended the Tea. One of these students, David Goerger ’14, said there are many issues on reservations that must be addressed.
“I live 20 miles north of the Sisseton Reservation in South Dakota, and even though there is little assimilation of Native American kids in our school system, I wouldn’t want to take away the schools specifically for Native American children,” Goerger said.
New Haven residents were also present at the talk. Joe Kowalski, 22, said he had been to a few Native American reservations himself, and thinks there is a need for a big change.
“Banks is right,” he said. “Corruption is very much still present in the reservations, and the government agencies haven’t done enough about it yet.”
Ann Horton, the manager of the Film Studies Center, which is co-sponsoring the film screening, said that the film center had invited Banks primarily for the film screening, but that the talk gave the history of AIM a more human angle.
Banks will also speak at an open house at the Native American Cultural Center on Thursday.