Before the Indian civil rights movement, before the Hollywood friendships and the movie auditions, before the FBI shootouts and the fugitive years, before the murder of an idealistic young activist--before all of this, there was a 31-year-old ex-con who was tired of getting arrested at bars. It was 1968 and Dennis Banks, outraged by the abuse of Native Americans at the hands of the Minneapolis police, was determined to do something. His early efforts were pretty modest. After an organizational meeting in the basement of a run-down church, Banks and a ragtag crew of tough young natives painted three old cars bright red. They then donned identical red berets, got their hands on some walkie-talkies, and started patrolling the streets of south Minneapolis. Their goal: to police the police.
In those days, as Banks tells the story, the cops routinely raided the Indian bars along Franklin Avenue, where they'd fill their arrest quotas by indiscriminately rounding up patrons on drunk-and-disorderly charges. Banks figures he was personally caught in such dragnets about 25 times. So sometimes Banks and his partners would spend their evenings standing guard outside the saloons. If they saw cops coming, they would rush inside and alert the customers of an impending raid. If they were too late, they would use cameras to document the arrests.
In the beginning, the Banks group called itself "Concerned Indian Americans." In the antigovernment atmosphere of the late '60s, that acronym--CIA--was unacceptable. So the group picked a new name, one that stuck: the American Indian Movement.
The story of AIM today, as much as it's told, involves the solving of an infamous reservation murder--a subject that once again threatens to put Banks on the wrong side of the law. And so it's easy to forget just how tenuous Indian identity was before the group's emergence. By the standards of the Indian activism of the time, Banks and company's civil rights tactics were radical. This was before the seismic shift in Indian consciousness that occurred in the '70s. The rallying cry of "Native Pride" had not yet become a staple statement of Indian self-expression. Tribal sovereignty was not yet a central buzzword of Indian law. And Indian spiritual practices--sweats, sun dances, and other purifying rituals that had been driven underground--had yet to reemerge.
Two of AIM's founders--Banks and Clyde Bellecourt, a fellow Objibwe from northern Minnesota--have long said the idea of the movement first came to them while they were behind bars. Banks, who was incarcerated from 1966 to 1968, had refused to work a job while in prison. Instead he devoted his time to reading about Indian history and current events. He became intrigued by the new strain of antiauthoritarian politics, especially the Black Panthers. Minnesota Indians, Banks thought, needed a similar organization, a group that wouldn't be afraid to demand justice and, if necessary, take up arms in resistance.
The similarity between the early AIM Patrol and the Black Panthers' Oakland operations was no accident, then. Certainly, there were significant differences between the black and Indian experiences of the day. But for both groups, generations of repression--combined with the burgeoning antiwar movement--turned into radicalism.
The particular circumstances of Banks's childhood were like those of many Indian youths of the day. Born into poverty on the Leech Lake reservation in northern Minnesota, Banks had no contact with his father and was effectively abandoned by his mother, who left him in the care of his devoted grandparents. When he was five, he was shipped off to a government-run boarding school, where he was deprived of family contact and systematically stripped of his Indian identity. He made several escapes before finally returning to his home reservation at 17.
Things didn't get much better from there. With no work prospects, Banks joined the Air Force and was stationed in Japan. There, he married a Japanese woman, fathered a child, and went AWOL. He was arrested and forcibly returned to the U.S.--never again to see his wife or child. After his discharge, Banks settled in Minneapolis. He worked minimum-wage jobs, started a new family, drank too much, and found trouble time and again. But in founding AIM, Banks seemed to find himself.
At the outset, AIM was a youth organization. It was especially attractive to Indians who had been driven off reservations by both endemic poverty and the federal government's post-World War II "termination" policies that sought to break up tribal governments and sever the ties between Indians and their homelands. For many Indians who came of age in the '50s and '60s, life in the big city was an alien and alienating experience--one bound to foment a fiery response.
AIM started as an urban street movement for Minnesota Indians, but it grew--and changed--rapidly. After experiencing his first sweat lodge on a visit to a Lakota reservation in 1969, Banks pushed to incorporate more religiosity into the movement. In short order, the AIM activists were forging alliances with traditional reservation Indians, making common cause in both the fight against corrupt, federally backed tribal governments and the abrogation of Indian treaty rights.
As the movement grew, so did the controversy. Some reservation Indians regarded the AIM leaders as grandstanders, city slickers who stirred up trouble only to leave others to clean up the mess. AIM, they cracked bitterly, stood for "assholes in moccasins." Meanwhile, a lot more white people--including the FBI agents who represented the final law on most reservations--had come to regard AIM as a dangerous and subversive organization.