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A History Maker Comes to Schoolcraft

Eigth Grade Crew (Grade 08 / Schoolcraft) Originally published May 2004

Schoolcraft Learning Community, a K-8 charter school near Bemidji, Minnesota was recently visited by Dennis Banks. In 1968, Mr. Banks helped to found the American-Indian Movement (AIM) in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Since that time AIM and Mr. Banks have been at the forefront of the battle for Native American rights in the United States.

Our crew was incorporating our design principles into our work. We had to research a topic of our choice as long as it had something to do with the Black Hills, and teach about it for a week to our class. Each group had to teach for nine hours throughout the week and give out a certain amount of homework. Mr. Banks came to Schoolcraft at the invitation of Simone and Elaine, Schoolcraft eighth graders. They invited Mr. Banks as part of the unit they were teaching titled: Wounded Knee 1973 and Surrounding Events. As a key figure in the 1973 events Mr. Banks brought firsthand knowledge and the under-reported Native American perspective to our classroom.

“The morning started out like any other day. Kent Nerburn, Elaine Fleming and Scott Gill from E.L.O.B. had come to meet our visitor. We were sitting in circle waiting for Dennis Banks to show up. We were talking with Scott Gill when Dennis Banks came in the room. Every one was silent. Elaine finally broke the silence by saying ‘Boozhoo’ [“Hello” in Ojibwe]. Elaine and Simone went up to Dennis to say ‘Boozhoo.’ Dennis gave Elaine wild rice and he gave Simone chokecherry syrup from his house/company in SugerPoint. Elaine and Simone gave him the gift of tobbaco in an abelone shell because its their tradition. He thanked them and they thanked him and then sat down.” –Jessica, 8th grade student

A student started by asking him about his life. We learned: Dennis Banks was born on the Leech Lake Reservation on April 12, 1937. His mother was full Chippewa. When Dennis was four years old, he was taken from his family to one of the many boarding schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (B.I.A.). In these boarding schools almost everything Native American (including their native languages), was forbidden. Dennis tried to escape from his boarding school six times and was punished for each attempt. He finally succeeded in escaping and returned to his parents eleven years after being taken to the school. In later years Mr. Banks enlisted in the Air Force. Dennis enjoyed the military and had ambitions of being a five star general. The structure of military reminded him of the boarding school life he grew up in. A demonstration to protest the expansion of his airbase contributed to Dennis’s change of heart about the Air Force. His commanding Officer had given them orders to shoot to kill any protesters that got out of control. Doing this was against his morals; he refused to shoot, and resigned from the Air Force the day after he witnessed this protest.

After leaving the military, Dennis got in trouble with the law and was jailed for burglary. Specifically he was charged with stealing groceries from a local store. He told us that, stupidly, he had driven home in the freshly fallen snow and the police only had to follow his tracks to find him.

Among the AIM activities Mr. Banks participated in were the 1968 Alcatraz occupation, the 1972 Trail of Broken Treaties caravan to Washington D.C., and the Wounded Knee Occupation of 1973. It was the illegal 71-day occupation at Wounded Knee where the F.B.I. were called in and besieged the town, that caused felony charges to be brought against Mr. Banks and the AIM co-founder Russell Means. These charges were later dropped. In 1975, Banks was convicted on riot charges related to the Custer Courthouse Incident that led to Wounded Knee (1973). In response to these charges, Dennis Banks went underground, but returned in 1984 to serve over a year in jail.

Dennis Banks also had small roles in a few movies, including War Party (1988), The Last of the Mohicans (1992), and Thunderheart (1992).

The students of the Schoolcraft Eighth Grade found Mr. Banks’ visit to be a truly moving classroom experience. The impact of a visit from and discussion with such a significant firsthand witness to historical events proved to be a high impact event in the student’s lives. Some students felt a daylong tension, hoping that nothing would be said to offend Mr. Banks. The existence of this tension points out the fact that there remains a distance to go, to achieve true reconciliation between Native Americans and the white population. This event was a giant step in that direction for the Schoolcraft Eighth Grade

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