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Passing on the staff: An interview with Dennis Banks

Part one

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

Indian Country Today: What were your original goals for the Longest Walk II and do you feel like they;ve been accomplished?

Dennis Banks: I believe that the 1978 walk actually set in motion this walk. The Longest Walk was a gathering of people concerned about the future. They were more concerned about the future than they were [about] that very moment.

That's a very unique place that we arrive at, when we don't have anything to eat in the house, but somebody else is starving. When that moment comes, when you start worrying about someone else, about someone else's future, that's a great moment. So the Longest Walk came about because of that. Then, five years ago, we began talking about walking across the country again.

Global warming is affecting us. I have a wild rice farm. Places like that are small-scale. We see it, we feel it, we sense it, we know it. Then I think on a much larger scale, what is happening? Global warming is here.

ICT: What was the response in the communities you encountered?

Banks: They are concerned about global warming. But the hard issues of today's living, that's what they are concerned about. For instance, along the Colorado River, it's the chromium seeping into their water system. And just 50 miles away, PG&E [Pacific Gas and Electric Co.] settled a claim against them for chromium seeping into the town's water supply. They settled for $330 million. But when it comes to the same situation for Native people, they don't even want to consider a court case. They're saying that it's tolerable.

ICT: What would you say is the state of Indian country today, compared to 30 years ago?

Banks: There's gaming now. A lot of tribes are wealthy. They help us, they help the walk, but it has been the tribes that don't have the gaming that are still walking with us. The big gaming money, you don't see hardly any of them walking with us, because they make so much money, they have money. So they don't walk, they don't walk for the future, they don't walk for concerns. It doesn't mean they're less concerned; just that they have the finances to cope with it.

ICT: You are handing over the staff. What does that mean to you?

Banks: I'm sure that there are people who look forward to their retirement in many different ways. When you work for a company, you get a watch after 40 years. It's exciting for me, because I'm saying I'm handing it over. It's a lot different, me handing things over and me getting a watch. So I'm calling the shots on this one, because I want to.

About 10 years ago, I overheard some young AIM people saying, ''How in the heck can we step up if those guys don't step off?'' And I thought, ''They're right''; and I thought, ''Next year I'll step aside.'' But I didn't.

I think that this walk has given me an opportunity to see the young people come up and for me to say, ''Yes, it's your time now.''

I'm an elder, I feel good about being an elder, I feel good about my life. If it ended this very second, I would feel that I've accomplished something. Now, when I hand it over, I can say, ''You guys carry it on. Do what you need to do. If you need some advice, I'll be over here.''

I don't want to organize anything. I want to spend some time with my grandchildren. I was up there; they were all snuggled up in my bed last night. It felt good. I was thinking: ''This is what I want.''

Continued in part two