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Passing on the staff: an interview with Dennis Banks

<b.Part two

Dennis Banks, 75-year-old Ashinaabe founder of the American Indian Movement and an activist in Indian issues for more than 40 years, formally retired at the conclusion of the cross-country Longest Walk II in Washington D.C., July 11. This interview was edited for space.

Indian Country Today: What do you think the challenges are for the new Native leadership? Are they different from what you had to face?

Dennis Banks: They;re not so much different, but I think the tactics could be different.

In the heyday of AIM, we used confrontational politics when it was necessary. I was never afraid of going to jail. I don't want our young people to have to go to jail, but I don't want them to be afraid, either.

There's a way you can achieve results with grass-roots organizing. You can do a walk; you can do a run. You can't expect people to do anything from their homes, unless they're computer wizards. You've got to get people out walking; you've got to get them out running.

Another challenge will be the culture. We must never abandon our culture.

ICT: If you were to meet the young Dennis Banks, of, let's say, 40 years ago, what would you say to him?

Banks: I would have said, ''It's about damn time you did this. Get off your ass.''

I went to prison in the beginning just for being drunk, for carrying on, wasting my life. I wasted like six years, doing absolutely nothing.

I was 32 when AIM started. But I was like 26, 27 when I was just, when my life was just useless, doing things and drinking and waiting until the bar opened. That's what I would have said: Don't be doing this.

ICT: What turned you around at that point?

Banks: My family was hungry and we broke into the grocery store. I couldn't even be a successful thief, I mean, I brought all the groceries home, it was winter time, I woke up my wife and said we got food, lots of food.

Within a half hour, there was a knock on the door. It was two police officers. They said, ''Is that your truck outside?'' I said, ''Yeah.'' They just followed the tracks from the grocery store to my home,

in Minneapolis.

I went to jail. It was me and a white guy, my friend. We committed the same act. We took groceries to his house. But Bill got an attorney, and I didn't. And I got sentenced to five years in prison.

Bill didn't.

ICT: So it was in prison that you made the turnaround in your life?

Banks: Oh yes, I could see the dual standards of justice there. Was it more because he had an attorney, or more because he was white? I felt it was because he was white. There were a lot of Indians in jail. Someone got caught pickpocketing and was sentenced to five years in jail. Writing bad checks, people do it all the time. But people on the reservation, writing bad checks, they get two years in jail, one year in jail.

ICT: Any other thoughts or feelings you want to share?

Banks: It's exciting to live today. I think in our time we will see the first black president, the first woman president. To live in these times, to see Obama, what changes will he make? I would like to see him in action.

There have been environmental conferences, and there have been some suggestions about an environmental Bill of Rights. I think that's important.

I talked about an inter-nation health care system. If we went to Canada right now, we'd be taken care of. But them coming over here? They're on their own. How can we be a nation, how can we financially be a No. 1 nation, but health-wise be a Third World nation? We're a five-star hotel with no-star service.

I'll be an advocate for all this. Like [Al] Gore.

I'm advocating now that we create a 100-elder circle in California. A meaningful one. That we be available to the young people. Like the AARP. That we are willing to be elders. For free. Put us up in a hotel, give us some room and board, give us a little stipend, then send us on our way. We'll be there to advise people.

(After handing over his staff in a ceremony near the Washington monument, Banks promised to go for a long ride on his motorcycle. ''If you see an old guy on a Harley,'' he said, ''give a wave. It might be me.'')