Posted by on May 4, 2012 in Uncategorized

A Good Day to Die: Dennis Banks Documentary (2010)

By:  Chase Iron Eyes

The title of this documentary, about Dennis Banks –American Indian Movement Co-founder, sends a most powerful message to its viewers:  that any time is an appropriate time to sacrifice for what you believe in.

The documentary chronicles the highlights of the life of Dennis Banks, starting with his childhood years as he was taken away from his mother and sent to boarding schools in northern Minnesota.  The documentary takes us through the violent years of the American Indian Movement (AIM), culminating in the 71 day siege at Wounded Knee, SD, which is still celebrated in the homelands of the Oglala Lakota Oyate (Pine Ridge Reservation).

Boarding schools for Indians is an appropriate place to start this documentary, as that policy of spiritual and cultural genocide is one of the root causes of the circumstances that caused such a response from Dennis Banks and AIM during the formative early years of the movement.  Indian people are still reeling from the Boarding School years, attempting to recover from loss of identity, language, esteem and Indigenous confidence.  The boarding school era cut at the heart of Indians with its sexual, physical, emotional and other abuses perpetrated on children by schools and those representing the Christian faith.  The documentary does an adequate job of prefacing the development of the Indian renaissance with a snapshot of the Boarding School era leading right into the termination and relocation policies of the U.S. government.

In the 1950s, boarding schools, termination and relocation caused a diaspora of indigenous peoples from the rural areas of America to city-centers like Denver, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and Chicago –giving some of our people the new moniker “Urban Indians.”  Urban Indians were besieged by the poverty culture of the inner-cities while struggling to make ends meet.  Through the political-social-economic suffering and interaction of many different Indian nations, the stage was set for the formation of Pan-Indian “Tecumseh-esque” coalitions.  Dennis Banks, being a relocated Indian, helped form such a coalition: the American Indian Movement.

The film provides insight into the formative years of Dennis Banks, as he overcame great adversity when he did time in prison and went through a period of self-discovery.  The film shows how Dennis learned to appreciate the power of community control as a method to improve Indians’ lives.  This understanding came through the sometimes painful process of self-realization, a path not uncommon for many Indigenous people wanting to improve conditions.

One effective way the film portrays Dennis and other Urban Indians taking community control is by creating a community watch program, to observe the Minneapolis-St.Paul cops, to prevent police brutality.  This was the starting point for AIM, as all the community members were mobilized upon the passing of a fellow Indian who was beaten by cops and subsequently died.  When this tragedy struck the community, a meeting was called.  An outpour of determined Indians showed up, thereby demonstrating that a critical mass of people existed and would sustain a community movement.

After AIM was jumpstarted in the late 1960s, the film follows it through its tumultuous course like a river overrunning its banks.  AIM would be most notable because of its signature brand of “confrontation politics,” as Clyde Bellecourt described AIM strategy in the film.  During the early years no one was taking up arms, literally or figuratively, for the protection of Indian people and our causes.  American Indians had been ignored for so long that the entire country was taken aback when AIM took over Mount Rushmore, which many consider still to be a desecration to the Sacred Black Hills which are still held illegally from the Great Sioux Nation.  The AIM members present struck a mind bomb when they draped huge hand-sewn and painted sheets that read “SIOUX INDIAN POWER” over the heads of “the founding fathers.”  This meme was a major coup in flinging AIM onto the national and international scene, penetrating the mindscape of America and announcing AIM’s willingness to take direct action; action which went a bit further than Indians in three-piece suits travelling to Washington, D.C., to smile, shake hands, and ask for more money or community control, or both.

AIM was just getting started at Mount Rushmore.  The film takes you on a dramatic journey through the increasingly violent tactics of the movement.  Viewers will appreciate the succinct but personal attention given to organizers’ human stories and circumstances surrounding the controversial developments of a growing and changing AIM.  After Mount Rushmore, the film provides incredible footage of the Trail of Broken Treaties, a mass caravan whose spirit attracted all walks of Indigenous peoples throughout its path from the West coast to Washington D.C.  The Trail of Broken Treaties, a true grass roots effort, culminated in the hostile takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in the Nation’s capital.  AIM members fought police and barricaded themselves after peaceful overtures by AIM were met with disrespect and neglect from the U.S. officials.

From Washington D.C. the film takes viewers to Custer, SD where Wesley Bad Heart Bull was killed by a white male in a bar fight, reportedly with several eyewitnesses attesting to the killers intentions to take Wesley’s life.  The prosecutor in Custer, SD would not charge murder.  Dennis Banks called everyone to action exclaiming “It is a good day to die.”  Thus, AIM descended upon the city to demand justice.  After police and AIM members clashed in a physical fight, AIM burned down the damn Court House.  This was a major turning point as illustrated in the film, because cops were attacked with threatening force.

The film leads us to the summit event of 20th century American Indian resistance: The Siege at Wounded Knee, during which Dennis Banks and Russell Means led AIM in an armed takeover of the village of Wounded Knee.  Wounded Knee is the site at which Custer’s 7th cavalry massacred 300 unarmed men, women, and children on Dec. 29, 1890.  Only this time in 1973, AIM was prompted by the call to action of Indian women to do something necessary to stop the federally backed non-traditional Indians (GOON Squad) from perpetrating civil war violence (rapes, assaults, shootings and murders) on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation– a “reign of terror” which still haunts us today.  There are reportedly 60 or so unsolved murders in the FBI files which happened during and after the events leading to the Siege at Wounded Knee.

The FBI, federal marshals, GOON squad Indians, and other U.S. paramilitary personnel exchanged over 10,000 rounds of gunfire, used Armored Personnel Vehicles, and flew U.S. Air Force missions over the hamlet of Wounded Knee during the 71-day siege which resulted in two casualties to the AIM defenders and a paralysis to the federal forces.  This Siege was the largest armed conflict on American soil since the Civil War; having all the makings of a theatre of war except American’s sympathy with the just cause for which AIM was occupying Wounded Knee.

This film is a must see for Indians and non-Indians alike.  The film does as much for the Indian viewers’ understanding of the evolution and power of pan-Nativeness as it does for the non-Indian viewers’ quest for understanding into the inside details of the most recent violent expression of American Indians’ continuing struggle to protect their interests.  AIM continues to be controversial to this day; change never comes easy.  However, it is my assertion that Indigenous people the world over would not have improved in the fashion they have but for the change-agent action of AIM; all our aunties, uncles, grandmothers, grandfathers, moms, dads, spiritual leaders and other relatives combined to re-ignite a fire inside of us that never dies, a fire placed in the hearts of Indigenous people by the Creator; a fire which last real Indians the world over must receive and protect for the coming generations.

The AIM days are not over.  It is a good day to live.