Eddie Benton-Banai, who helped found the American Indian Movement partly in response to alleged police brutality against Indigenous people, has died. He was 89.
He died Monday at a care center in Hayward, Wisconsin, where he had been staying for months, according to family friend Dorene Day. Day said Benton-Banai had several health issues and had been hospitalized multiple times in recent years.
Benton-Banai, who is Anishinaabe Ojibwe, was born and raised on the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation in northern Wisconsin. He made a life of connecting American Indians with their spirituality and promoting sovereignty, and was the grand chief, or spiritual leader, of the Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge.
Day said he was someone people looked to for guidance in the religious practice of the Anishinaabe Ojibwe people – and he gave countless babies their traditional names.
Benton-Banai’s place in the American Indian Movement, a grassroots group formed in 1968, can be traced to his launch of a cultural program in a Minnesota prison, said co-founder Clyde Bellecourt.
Bellecourt was in solitary confinement when he heard someone whistling You are My Sunshine, and he looked through a tiny hole in his cell and saw Benton-Banai, a fellow inmate, recognizing him as an Indigenous man.
Bellecourt said Benton-Banai approached him about helping incarcerated Indigenous people, and they started the prison’s cultural program to teach American Indians about their history and encourage them to learn a trade or seek higher education. Bellecourt said Benton-Banai thought they could do the same work in the streets, and the program morphed into the American Indian Movement, an organization that persists today with various chapters.
“It started because I met Eddie in jail,” Bellecourt said. “Our whole Indian way of life came back because of him … My whole life just changed. I started reading books about history of the Ojibwe nation … dreaming about how beautiful it must have been at one time in our history.”
One of the group’s first acts was to organize a patrol to monitor allegations of police harassment and brutality against Native Americans who had settled in Minneapolis where it is based. Members had cameras, asked police for badge numbers and monitored radio scanner traffic for mention of anyone who they might recognize as Indigenous to ensure their rights weren’t being violated – similar to what the Black Panthers were doing at the time, said Kent Blansett, an associate professor of Indigenous studies at the University of Kansas who has written about the movement.
The group called out instances of cultural appropriation, provided job training, sought to improve housing and education for Indigenous people, provided legal assistance, spotlighted environmental injustice and questioned government policies that were seen as anti-Indigenous.
“Anything they could find that they could insert a Native presence and voice, they were there to do,” said Blansett, a Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Shawnee and Potawatomi descendant.
At times, the American Indian Movement’s tactics were militant, which led to splintering in the group. In one of its most well-known actions, the group took over Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota in 1973 to protest against US and tribal governments. The 71-day occupation turned violent, and two people died in a shootout.
As the movement broadened nationally, Benton-Banai kept his work more local and focused on cultural and traditional teachings, and education. His roots in the group were often overshadowed by more powerful personalities in the movement, including Russell Means, Dennis Banks and John Trudell, said Akim Reinhardt, a history professor at Towson University in Maryland.
“It’s a shame, because clearly when we listen to the people who were there, they all mention him,” said Reinhardt, who has written broadly about the movement.
Lisa Bellanger, executive director of the National American Indian Movement and Benton-Banai’s former assistant, said he was instrumental in the group’s work using treaties to protect the rights of Indigenous people. He was also part of a team that pushed for the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, she said, as government policies stifled or outlawed religious practices. The law safeguarded the rights of American Indians to practise their religion and access sacred sites.
Bellanger said Benton-Banai also helped launch the International Indian Treaty Council, which advocates for the rights of Indigenous nations to govern themselves, and for the protection of tradition, culture and sacred land.