As a teacher of Native American Literature, I have often wished for this book! Dennis Banks is a legend to the college students, as he was to me when I was a student. He is also the rare man who proves to not only live up to his legend, but to rise above it. The power he has to inspire people across generations and cultures is just one good reason to pay attention to what he has to say.
With the exception of Peter Matthiessen's In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, there had been no book which, for me, brought to life the early days of the American Indian Movement and made comprehensible the events surrounding the occupation of Wounded Knee, and its aftermath. Matthiessen does a good job, but is limited by the obvious--he is writing about something. Mr. Banks, of course, was there.
Mr. Banks is a man who can do anything, and do it well, as he shows us again through writing this book. When one has lived an amazing life, as he has, what better way to share it than through a book? His writing style is beautiful--clear, compelling, descriptive--and his subject matter is some of the most important and most neglected in all of American history.
But in spite of its national scope, the book is, above all, spiritual and personal. Banks shares his life, in the best sense. The first chapter shows us the danger at Wounded Knee, and the miraculous escape of Banks and four friends. Chapter 2 takes us back to his childhood on the Leech Lake reservation, from memories of the beautiful ceremonies surrounding the harvest of the wild rice to his enlistment in the Air Force at seventeen years old. Then, as later at Wounded Knee, it was the blessing of his people, the medicine and prayers they gave to him, which became his protection in this world. The honest and open way he speaks of his faith in spiritual matters should be envied by many of the so-called "spiritual" writers of our time--there is no troubling use of language here, no struggle to redefine spiritual terms to fit our day and time, and no awkwardness when he tells of praying aloud. At one Sun Dance, a young man asks for his help because of trouble with his wife; later, as Banks stands with his hands on a tree, praying to the Creator for his help and guidance in running the dance("Grandfather, help us during this day and all the days of this sacred dance.), the man's two small boys overhear him and begin laughing, thinking he is talking to the tree. He calls to them, wanting to tell them what it is all about, but they run away. He remembers an elderly blind woman from his own childhood, and how he and his friends hooted and whistled at her when she went to her own special place, a tree, to pray to the Creator. He can recall the lilt of her voice, her sincerity in singing and in prayer, and knows now how close she was to the Great Spirit. When he speaks of such things, of suffering, of the unquestioned belief that, with prayer, the spirits will help us, one sees where the power which sustains the American Indian Movement comes from. At the end of Chapter 21, which covers another amazing escape/shootout, this one in Marlon Brando's motorhome, Banks suggests, quietly, "Maybe the Creator is an AIM-lover."
The honesty of this book is evident in so many ways--without obsessing over them, Banks shares his failures in some relationships, and admits that his absences from home have been hard on his family. He speaks openly of his time in prison, offering some constructive criticism of the system and its methods of dehumanizing people. But again and again, it is the peacefulness of the story, the small moments, which delight the reader. Here is the man who spent months pursued by the FBI, the man who dodged countless bullets, both real and figurative, proving to the reader that he prefers peace, that he is not and has never been a violent man. This is underscored by the family moments, like when he takes his daughter, Tashina, deer hunting, and witnesses her crying, shocked, when she realizes he means to shoot the deer. So he doesn't--they amend deer hunting to deer-watching, and everyone goes home happy.
It is also a book which comes full circle, when in the Afterword we find Banks doing what he does now--raising his youngest son, Minoh, at Federal Dam, where he was born, and running a small business with wild rice and maple syrup. His son is learning the Anishinabe language, and they live in the old ways--hunting, fishing, making canoes and drums. "It is a good life up here," he says.
Dennis Banks is a man we should hear, and his is a book we should read. As a final note, it is also a book we should look at. The 72 photographs include excellent family photos, and photos of reservation life and sacred ceremonies, including modern-day Sun Dances. There are also, of course, many powerful pictures from the protests of the 1970's. Many of the Wounded Knee pictures have not been widely seen before, and, along with their captions, tell the story in their own way.