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.


| May 2013



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

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.