The First Time I Saw Dennis Banks

How one man helped a woman find healing and restore her faith in her ideals and in other people.

Cushion in the Road

Author Alice Walker shares her meditations on themes such as racism and the American Indian Movement in “The Cushion in the Road”.

Cover Courtesy The New Press

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Author Alice Walker shares her meditations on a wide-range of themes including racism, Africa, and the American Indian Movement in The Cushion in the Road (The New Press, 2013). In this excerpt taken from the chapter titled “Introducing the Ojibwa Warrior,” Walker reflects on the first time she saw Dennis Banks, a man she credits to her finding healing and keeping faith in her ideals and in other people. 

Molokai, Hawaii, Spring 2008

The first time I saw Dennis Banks I was struck by how merry he seemed. It was at Evergreen State University in Washington in the early seventies; I was there to read poetry and talk about my life in the Southern freedom movement in Mississippi, and I suppose he was on campus talking about the creation of the American Indian Movement, AIM, of which he was a founder. I remember being struck by his lightness of spirit, believing as I do that happiness is already victory. I don’t recall everything he was wearing, but the effect was of someone blessedly returned to the clothing and hairstyle that suited him. Jeans, a fawn-colored ribbon shirt, a robe perhaps made from a Pendleton blanket. Wrapped around the coils of hair that made up his long, dark braid, the reddest of red thread signaled to the world that, yes indeed, here is an Indian and he is incredibly hip and alive. Seeing him there, in a landscape scrubbed clean of Indian presence, was a tonic to my spirit. I smiled, asking the young woman guiding me about campus who he might be. She knew his name and nothing else. I went back to Mississippi, where black people — many of them part Choctaw and Cherokee — heroically struggled to free themselves from the death grip of slavery and segregation, holding the treasure that was Dennis’s vibrant survival as an Indian close to my heart.

Many years later, after moving to the West Coast, I became involved in the American Indian Movement: reading poetry with John Trudell; hosting fund-raisers with Nilak Butler, Bill Wahpepah, and his sculptor wife, Carol; celebrating UnThanksgiving Day at Alcatraz Island; praying on top of Black Mesa in Arizona; and joining demonstrations and vigils for Native American rights whenever I could. However, it wasn’t until a decade had passed that I once again saw Dennis, this time handcuffed, on trial for a list of crimes designated by the court, having voluntarily returned to face sentencing after leading the FBI on a chase that lasted eleven years.

I have told the story of that meeting, in Custer, South Dakota, many times. It is worth telling again, however, in this context. I would like the people who read the history Dennis Banks has written of his life to witness one of the ways healing happens to us when we keep faith with our ideals and with each other.

And, in fact, with the ancestral spirits we recognize ourselves, reincarnated, to be. My own connection to Indians and Indian affairs has always felt natural. When I was a child my father took us to view Eagle Rock, a huge pile of stones in the shape of an eagle, left by an ancient native people in Putnam County, Georgia, where I was born. He felt a reverence for these stones that flowed directly to the hearts of his children. We were told in all seriousness that these Native people, who had existed in Georgia before the white people came, would someday return. This is what we desperately hoped, as years of poverty and racism stole my father’s vitality and his optimism, and the civil rights movement, coming as it did just as he had completely lost his health — to diabetes and heart disease — must have seemed to him to signal only more disappointment and racial repression. Indeed, in the early days of the movement, the hatred unleashed against black people in the South brought an unending stream of bad news: lynchings, beatings, bombings, floggings — things he would have hoped were forever behind him.

Whenever I hear the story of how Tibetan lamas are determined (a small child is shown objects that he* used in a previous life and he recognizes them, chooses them, over what ever else might be offered) I am reminded of a time in grade school when we were given the cast-off textbooks sent over to us from the white children’s school. In one of these, there was a drawing of an African, an Indian, and a white person, all stereotyped, of course. The African and the Indian were “heathens” of the most objectionable sort.

*It is a bit fishy that these lama children are always male.

The Indian woman was seated, however, next to one of her beautifully decorated pots, and it seemed to be mine. The recognition I experienced was intense. I experienced the design as something I already understood and knew. This was my spiritual, my soul, connection to Native creativity. Native beauty. It would be years before I could grasp the importance of the fact that my mother’s grandmother, Tallulah (Basket maker), was African and Cherokee.

And so, when I saw Dennis Banks, and later when I worked for Indian sovereignty alongside Nilak Butler, John Trudell, Bill and Carol Wahpepah and their sons, and later when Wilma Mankiller, principal chief of the Cherokee, became a treasured confidant, it was soul reaching out to soul over centuries and over years. I carried this sensibility into all interactions with Native people, even when it was obvious that most of them had no idea of the history of suffering and awareness of each other’s tribulations and triumphs we had previously shared. I discovered that whenever I was with Native people, whether in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, or Australia, I felt at home. I used to “charge” Bill Wahpepah, a large, handsome man with two long braids, a modest fee for some of the events he managed to get me to participate in: a few minutes pounding on the big drum that always appeared at Native gatherings, around which six young male warriors always sat, a drum that seemed mine as well.

So this is to say it hurt a lot to know Dennis Banks had been forced into exile because he had gone to defend Native people on the Pine Ridge reservation. As had Leonard Peltier and Russell Means, and many other men and women who answered the call to claim their Indian identity by fighting, alongside their elders and their children, to preserve it.

At the time, I was very ill with Lyme disease and so debilitated I could barely walk. I would lie on my couch some days wondering if I could muster the energy to reach the table or the stove and whether I could make myself and my young daughter enough cooked food to eat. This many-years-long fatigue was, as well, extremely taxing to my spirit, and when I learned Dennis was to be tried in South Dakota, and tried in Custer, of “Custer died for your sins” fame, and that the attorney general of South Dakota had said the best thing for Dennis Banks would be a bullet through his head, I decided to go to Dennis’s trial — to attempt to protect him, and all Indian people, with the blanket of my witness as shredded and tattered as one of the woolen blankets in a Curtis photograph of “vanishing Indians.” It was impossible, of course, sick as I was, and that was incentive enough to attempt it. I learned that if I did not speak I could conserve enough power to actually move. I went, using energy that seemed to come just enough minute by minute to get me to the airport, to the plane, and finally to Custer, South Dakota. There I lay on the ground surrounded by dogs, children, and a couple of Buddhist nuns who calmly and resolutely pounded, throughout the trial, on handheld drums.

Eventually, I was lifted up and snuck into the courtroom by Bill Wahpepah, who placed a shawl over my head and stood me in the line of Native elders who were permitted to enter the courtroom. I saw Dennis’s wife, Kamook, and their young children. I heard the elders, with so much love and humility in their voices, plead for Dennis’s freedom and life. I saw Dennis, dressed in a flowing robe with his red cloth through his hair and, because he is a runner, running shoes on his feet. He stood with dignity. And bore the verdict of the court with grace.

I was able to slip a copy of The Color Purple to him before I returned to California. Years later, when we reconnected in Cuba, where we had gone to deliver medicines and to meet with Fidel Castro, who seemed to know as much about Indian concerns as we did, Dennis told me how he had read the novel and passed it around the prison to other inmates until the pages were like onionskin. Years later, over dinner at my house, he would laugh as he told me how the men in the prison always returned the book, but that when it was shared with the women in the prison, it disappeared for good.

There we were, a couple of decades after his sentencing, and after the amazing and sometimes horrific events described in this incredibly important book, laughing. He had experienced a healing from my work, and I had experienced what seemed to me a miracle: from the moment I left South Dakota, having given all that I had in the way of spiritual energy to Dennis’s well-being, my own health began to improve. My recovery was dramatic, and unmistakably connected to making the journey to Custer. At the time that I had Lyme disease it did not have a diagnosis or a name. I recognized my symptoms as information appeared in the media about this mysterious affliction — an autoimmune disease — caused by a tick bite. I learned that one way to heal it is to give the immune system a chore that is impossible to accomplish. The insistence on an impossible act startles the system into a response. This is what I believe happened to me. And I have Dennis to thank.

When I was a child I read books for entertainment and information I now think of books as lifeboats. Each book that comes rushing down the stream of my life is checked for its relevance to our survival and prospering as a species. For the use to which Earthlings, and all beings, might put our incredible intelligence to save our tiny, sinkable, ship. Thinking about Dennis’s book in this way, I sat with its story for several months, waiting to see what was for me its most important bit of news. I believe it is this: that we must revive our capacity to intuit what is happening to us and around us. This seems to be a faculty almost completely lost. It was a shock to read of the government-paid informants who infiltrated the American Indian Movement almost from its inception. Although I was aware, from my own involvement in movements for change, that agents of the state were always shadowing any progressive political thought and work, it had not occurred to me how easily and smoothly this might be done. I also realize that, when we used to smile at the ubiquitous camera people who materialized to cover every march and demonstration, we were in a sense acknowledging our awareness that we were being spied upon and that there was little we could do about it. In Dennis’s story we see how much harm is done by our own acceptance of people who claim to be our friends but who instead are working hard, with the backing of the U.S. government, to ensure our destruction. What to do?

The spiritual path that Dennis takes as he moves along in the American Indian Movement is the one with the most juice, as he discovers. It is in meditating, in sweats, in the Sun Dance, and in prayer that we sharpen our emotional and relational intelligence. It is easier to discern who one’s friends are after a long quiet time with nature and with our own souls than it is when we are throwing Molotov cocktails and firing guns — behavior that provocateurs the world over tend to encourage.

It is also crucial to listen to women. Those you are married to, those you are sleeping with, and those who are giving birth to, protecting, and feeding the warriors, and taking care of the elders and the children. It is also necessary to listen to the Feminine within one’s self, what ever one’s sex. When the Feminine suspects the lifeboat has been infiltrated with someone who wishes to sink it, it is time to put aside what ever vanity of all-knowingness one might have, and to listen. It is enough to make us weep, worldwide, to contemplate the amount of suffering that might have been avoided had the Feminine, whose hallmark is not only fierceness and compassion but also intuition, been listened to.

What finally sinks in, when one is of African Amerindian or Native American descent, is that our battle for our lives is real. It is not a game. It has never ended, since the moment Christopher Columbus landed on our shores, commenting as he studied us how friendly, generous, and good-natured we were. But this awareness of our uphill struggle need not make us gloomy. In fact, when I consider my own bloodlines — African, Native American, European (from the British Isles, no less) — I am filled with an almost frisky sense of curiosity. How will this unusual drama unfold? Who are Americans eventually to be? How is it that my own small being encompasses such a large and often tragic portion of my nation’s history? And what of the vast sense of love I so frequently feel that must have come down to me from the lovers among the bloodlines who defied everything and everyone around them, especially the government and the church, in order to send down to their descendant a sense of oneness that easily enfolds distant galaxies and the stars? Perhaps we are still as we always were, generous, gentle, and unashamed, as Columbus found us; but we, having temporarily lost our intuitive knowledge of our essence, have forgotten this.

Indians and Africans and free whites laughing. Being merry. Wearing red ribbons in our hair. And so we go on, in every moment honoring who we were and are; in every moment, being.

Perhaps it is enough to affirm the goodness of Life, as our ancestors did, what ever our struggles or suffering. To know that though much has been taken from us, Wonder remains. Joy of connection with the Universe. Inner calm in the face of massive assault, as we begin to see quite clearly that our victors have lost everything in attempting to conquer us. There is, finally, nothing to envy or to honor them for. To know, as my father did, that the Indians of the world, those who have attempted to care for Mother Earth, always return to Her, and that in our deepest heart, we never leave. Nor would we even dream of it.

Dennis Banks’s book, Ojibwa Warrior, was published in 2004, before this essay (2008).  

Reprinted with permission from The Cushion in the Road: Meditation and Wandering as the Whole World Awakens to Being in Harm’s Way by Alice Walker and published by The New Press, 2013.