Month: April 2006

A Conversation with Activist/Warrior/Mentor Dennis Banks

Albuquerque, NM – It was an unexpected interview. It was the National Indian Gaming annual conference, and much of the activity was around the current politics of Capitol Hill. In the middle of talking to too many people at once, a young woman I recognized said, “My Dad and I are going into business together…I’d like to introduce you to him.” She turned me around, and said, “This is Dennis Banks.”

He was sitting quietly, surrounded by all of the intense activity of the conference, like a still place in the middle of a storm. I didn’t recognize him at first, with his graying beard and moustache, much older than the photos I have seen of him. We set up an interview to talk about their business. “I graduate from University of New Mexico in a few months,” said Tasina Banks, “With a degree in business.” Her quick smile and rapid fire speech were warm and with a purpose…her major is marketing, and she is working to sell something she cares deeply about – her father’s work.

Dennis Banks is best known for his work done during the Red Power heydays of the 1970’s, and he became famous during the Occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973 along with fellow leaders John Trudell, Leonard Crow Dog and Russell Means. Banks was known as a thoughtful and uncompromising speaker for Indian country.

Today, Dennis Banks is back home in Anishinaabe country, where he lives near the banks of Leech Lake in Minnesota. As grandpa to a generation of up and coming leadership, Banks spends much of his time living and teaching the traditional ways of his Anishinaabe people. He is still talking politics, but it is the politics of personal responsibility that he is preaching today. “How can we have anything if we refuse to take care of ourselves” he asked. He has turned his energy toward the health of the people, and he is adamant that the future depends upon eating good, wild foods and exercising the body that the creator gave each of us. “Diabetes is killing our people, and people should be shocked,” he said, “But too many of us are ignoring the fact that the foods that we are putting into our bodies are literally poisoning us.

This is one interview where I immediately wished we had brought our video camera. Banks speaks as much with his body language, his hands, and his expressions, as he does with his verbalized words. His presence is rich and deep, and his face clearly shows volumes of experiences. Unlike some people who wear a mask to hide their emotions, Banks is open and generous, eager to share what he has learned. Our visit lasted a while, and I was struck by his kindness, his sadness, his concerns for his people, and ultimately his hope for each of us to take responsibility for ourselves and find the good life the Creator intended.

The cavernous space of the Albuquerque Convention Center was fairly quiet on the top floor where we sat down for the interview. Sunlight filtered down from a skylight high above us, and Dennis Banks began to talk about life.

Lise Balk King: Tell me a little bit about your business venture.

Dennis Banks: It’s about six years old. It’s a small start-up business…well, in terms of the rez, it’s pretty big. We began in 1999, and we started tapping trees in February for syrup. It wasn’t started off as a business venture in the beginning, but we made so much syrup that spring that we sold it to the tribe. I had just moved back to the reservation. Then, in August we went ricing, harvesting wild rice. We made a lot of wild rice that year. Then the following October, Takeo (his friend and Japanese business partner) came to visit me. We have been friends since 1978, we became friends during The Longest Walk. He thought there may be some interest in developing a market overseas. The following year I decided that I would, in fact, do business. So, 2000 was our first year we began tapping. The first year we tapped 200 trees. The second year we tapped 900. We have over 1000 maple trees tapped right now. We have six canoes that we use for harvesting rice. We began with one, now we have six.

LBK: I know a little bit about wild ricing, a little bit about the traditions that goes on in that area of the country. Tell me what the significance of these two food products in terms of the traditions of the tribe or the significance to you personally of working with these traditional foods.

Banks: We harvest wild rice, and then it is separated and parched with fire underneath it. On Leech Lake, where we live, we have the largest natural wild rice bed in North America. So Leech Lake rice is very much sought after. But rice is a spiritual food. We use it to help in trading and other things. Rice was a commodity, a staple, that was directed to us by the Creator. That’s the Annishinaabe story. During times of famine we were told to keep moving, keep moving, until we found the food that grows above the water. And of coarse, in the history of it, we couldn’t understand what that meant until we came to the lakes in Minnesota where the wild rice was. And, by watching the ducks and the geese, they kept pushing these stalks and the rice was falling, the idea of harvesting came to the Anishinaabe people. That’s one story, and it’s a little bit more elaborate than that, and there’s a lot more stories around it.

We have ceremonies before we do the harvest, and we have ceremonies to close it out. It has traditionally been a family gathering time, families gather and we make rice camp (I live right by the lake now, so I don’t have to make camp)…And wild rice is used as a ceremonial food during small ceremonies, big ceremonies, spiritual ceremonies. Rice is brought out by the Anishinaabe people and served to the people as a spiritual food. It is a natural food. We don’t add nothing to it – we can’t add nothing to it. In California, however, they are producing what it called “Paddy Rice.” They are planting and harvesting it. They spray it with toxic chemicals, herbicides, pesticides. So by the time it gets to the table it’s really dark, it’s really a black kernel. When we are parching our rice, we stop the parching when it gets to a golden brown. So, the most sought after rice is Leech Lake rice, our rice.

LBK: Winona brought us some rice from your area.

Banks: Yup. She’s another one who is doing a lot to hold off these developers, the people that are doing the paddy rice. It’s engineered. It’s not a true wild rice. We’ve joined her campaign, “Keep it Wild.” So we pass the word wherever we can, wherever we go worldwide. Paddy rice is mis-labeled as “Paddy Wild Rice,” it’s not wild rice.

(Editors Note: Winona LaDuke’s website on this subject is at http://www.nativeharvest.com. From the website: “Our work over the past two years has been to work to combat the genetic manipulation, patenting and the misrepresentation of wild rice locally, nationally and internationally.”)

LBK: So, this is a traditional food, and a ceremonial food and a cultural food. And it’s has a lot of nourishment and meaning, more than just the physical.

Banks: When Takeo entered the picture, he invited some business people to come to my home. They saw how we harvested that wild rice, which is a lot different than how they harvest rice over there (in Japan).

Some of the rice stays up on the stalk . Some of the kernels go straight down (gestures with his hands, watching the rice kernel sink to the bottom of the lake) and it’s real silty at the bottom. Have you felt the way that the kernel is barbed? If you feel the kernel one way it is real smooth, but the other way, it’s rough. So, it lands and it buries itself in the silt and stays there, stays there for the whole year, even when the lakes get froze over. Like right now, it’s still down there, froze up, and then it will germinate and it will come up again. So, it seeds itself.

LBK: So the actual kernels become the seeds.

Banks: Yes. It doesn’t need pesticides or herbicides for it to grow. It just needs itself and the nutritional value is not contaminated with chemicals. It is a natural food. We don’t do anything to it, we just parch it.

LBK: Why do think it is important to promote the natural, native foods?

Banks: Diabetes is wrecking our lives. It is the single most devastating disease across this United States is diabetes. And we’re not shocked about it! We’re not. Remember when AIDS came across here? People were shocked and even treated people as lepers. The awareness for AIDS has been so great that we don’t see so many people dying of AIDS anymore. But diabetes? We’ve not reacted with rage with ourselves and our own diets. Even though we are going to the funerals of our own children, uncles, aunts.

LBK: You are also producing maple syrup.

Banks: Maple syrup is a natural food, all we do is boil it. You can drink the sap, just coming out of the tree like that.

LBK: What does it taste like?

Banks: It tastes like water, but with a hint of sweetness to it. It tastes SO good. I would drink the sap more than I would drink the syrup. And then when you take the maple syrup and keep boiling it, stirring it, pretty soon it gets thick like taffy, and pretty soon it starts to crystallize, like sugar. So, you get three products. You get the sap, the syrup, and the sugar cakes and the sugar. I eat that and drink it raw when we tap it. You see all of the squirrels doing the same thing. But I don’t have diabetes. And it’s a natural sugar.

LBK: You’re making me hungry…

Banks: The deer, they hang around the camp and they go and suck on those trees. And the porcupines. So, we share with those animals. You don’t see the squirrels dying of diabetes.

LBK: So what was the idea behind taking these natural products and making them available through marketing, bottling, packaging, and selling?

Banks: There are a lot of us in the community… that’s how the whole community has survived all of these years. During the harvest time, you go out and harvest and you sell it to the tribes for school clothes for the kids… And then we had all this big bulk of wild rice. We brought it out and thought, “What are we going to do with it?” We can serve it back to our people. We do that anyway in all the ceremonies, for the tribe we provide ALL the wild rice. But now we still have 100,000 pounds extra over here.

LBK: That’s a lot.

Banks: Yes. Then when I became involved with it, I thought, “Maybe we can become part of combatting diabetes.” We went to the USDA and asked them about putting it in all of the school lunches. They thought it was a good idea, but it never went beyond that.

LBK: So what made you decide to lend your name to the packaged food product? You have a well-known name because of the work that was done, political work, starting back in the seventies, then the eighties, and on to today. So you have a name that people know. What made you decide to lend your name?

Banks: There’s about seventy families that do wild rice, and I buy from all of them. And there’s about fifteen families that get involved when we do maple syrup. All the kids come out and help. So, we had a generic label in the year 2000. Someone in the community said “Dennis, why don’t you just put your name on it?” I said, “No.” First of all, I said, “It won’t sell.” (laughter) That was my first reaction. Then I said, “Well, let’s try it out.” So we got some labels and put “Dennis Banks” on it. Then we started to put the message of what the environment should be, it should be in a good state. That’s why I decided to lend my name. Because it helps seventy or so families that I buy from. Technically they don’t work for me, but I’m buying all of the rice.

LBK: It reminds me of the Paul Newman line. And someone told me that you know him, worked with him back in the day.

Banks: Yeah. And he gives a lot to non-profit organizations, he gives a lot to community groups. And we do more than sell rice and syrup. We make and sell crafts, birch bark canoes. We make drums the size of this table, museum-quality stuff. We make six-foot canoes (www.dennisbanks.com).

LBK: Paul Newman started with salad dressing and now he has got a whole line of food products. Would you consider, are you considering taking on other food products if these things do well?

Banks: As a matter of fact, we also do other syrups with wild fruit and berries. Our main market is right here in the United States, but right now all of my product goes to Japan. I only have one customer, and they buy all of what we produce. This year, my daughter Tashina is graduating from college with a business degree, we are starting to develop a “Dennis Banks Natural Products” line. You can get more information by going to http://www.DennisBanks.com, or you can email my daughter at tashina@tashinabanks.com

(a cell phone call comes in…)

I am on this run right now. I’ve gotta fly back and run tomorrow…We do these spiritual runs…I run or walk every day. I used to do ten miles. It keep us healthy to run, walk.

LBK: These runs are about both spiritual and political work?

Banks: Yup.

LBK: Most people know you from your political work and people are always are looking for leaders, people are always looking for somebody to help them find their way. It seems like there’s a lot of need …Do you have anything you want to say to people that look at you as a leader?

Banks: I think young people have to step up to the plate. In 1999 when I moved back, I had a small sum of money but it was exhausted right away, so we had to do something. So, we started tapping trees and then a lot of young kids stayed with me. I’m showing them how they shouldn’t have to sell their rice all the time, what they should do is think more about making it last and, you know, and harvesting it themselves. It’s a long answer to your question, but I think young people have to step up now and begin to develop their leadership on their own, you know? A basketball player is a good player, but only by getting on that court time after time, night after night after night he begins to polish his style and pretty soon he has that success.

Michael Jordan, he stepped up to the plate, and Tiger Woods, he trained and trained. Young people? We have to set them up, bring them up.

LBK: There’s a lot of criticism that goes on. It takes a certain strength or personality in the individual to succeed, or kids have to have the support around them of family or relatives or friends to help brush off the negative.

Having the support is really important, so what do you say to those young people who have a dream and have the desire but don’t know where to find the help don’t know where to find the support?

Banks: Well, I know where people can not find the leadership to help them out – I think we better start from there – we can’t find it in a bottle, we can’t find it in a needle doing drugs, we can’t find it in a prison or jail, we can’t find it being abusive to our children, we can’t find it being abusive to our spouses.

So you may have to go to that bar – but not to drink – you may have to go to that bar to drag people out of there. You may have to chop wood all winter long for somebody. You may have to haul water for somebody. That’s where your going to find it, that’s where your going to find that leadership, that’s where you know if you have dreams of helping and and its there. Places are loaded for them to go to, they just have to find it and work it.

This past year the hurricane Katrina hit and it hit with so much force that it knocked out homes, just blew them away. There were a lot of Native people down there in Louisiana in those areas that were hit by the hurricane. We went down there just last month, seven months after it hit. You know what? There were a lot of white kids who came down there who wanted to spend their spring break down there helping people. To me, that was a sign of leadership through helping. You got to go to where the path is not there yet, that’s what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to find those places to help people and then you’ll start to develop whatever your thing is whether its about politics…or music…or whatever – but it takes hard work.

Sometimes as native people we only react to a crisis. We do that good, like a fireman you know, “There’s a burning building and there’s somebody screaming, then we know what we have to do. But when it quiets down we go back to whatever we were doing, drinking or whatever.

I want them to be producing and creating the opportunity themselves. If there’s none that exists, then create the opportunity.

LBK: Like taking something that happens naturally in the community, like ricing, and creating Dennis Banks Natural Products to help sustain the community.

Banks: Why not?

[Sidebar]

Dennis Banks Natural Products, 10038 Sugar Point Drive NW, Federal Dam, MN 56641, http://www.dennisbanksnaturalproducts.com, Tel. 218654-5885

[Sidebar]

Dennis Banks, AIM Co-Founder and one of the leaders of the Wounded Knee Occupation in 1973. Today, Dennis Banks is back home in Anishinaabe country, where he lives near the banks of Leech Lake in Minnesota.

As grandpa to a generation of up and coming leadership, Banks spends much of his time living and teaching the traditional ways of his Anishinaabe people.

[Sidebar]

Dennis Banks, AIM Co-Founder and one of the leaders of the Wounded Knee Occupation in 1973, sings traditional songs at this years 2006 National Indian Gaming Conference

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