Eddie Benton-Banai, co-founder of the American Indian Movement, dies at 89

To people stand by a large window.
In this Nov. 4, 1971 photo, Eddie Benton-Banai shows a prayer he wrote to Linda Jeffers. Benton-Banai, one of the founders of the American Indian Movement, has died.
J. Walter Green | AP 1971

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.

Benton-Banai died Monday at a care center in Hayward, Wisc., 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 that 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 in Minneapolis, where it's based. Its work included job training, efforts to seek better housing and education for Indigenous people, provide legal assistance and question government policies.

Wounded Knee occupation

At times, the American Indian Movement's tactics were militant. In one of its most well-known actions, the group took over Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to protest U.S. and tribal governments. The 71-day occupation turned violent, and two people died in a shootout. 

Benton-Banai spoke with an MPR reporter about the occupation in 1973.

"Symbolically, Wounded Knee has certainly brought the attention of Indian people all over the country,” he said at the time. “Other oppressed people and people who are interested in freedom for people have certainly looked upon Wounded Knee as one of the best places to have this confrontation. If one is to die under the fire of the United States government, I, too, would choose to die at Wounded Knee." 

Akim Reinhardt, a history professor at Towson University in Maryland, said Benton-Banai's roots in the group often got overshadowed by more powerful personalities in the movement, including Russell Means, Dennis Banks and John Trudell.

“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 practice 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.

"Indian people have stood up in the streets, in the classrooms and in the courtrooms and have said that it is time for America to live up to its promises to Native American people,” Benton-Banai told MPR in 1978. “It's time for America to extend to Native American people all the rights and privileges that other people enjoy today."

But in addition to his activism work, Benton-Banai was also a father figure. 

“We could always go to him with questions," Bellanger said. “We could run crying to him if we needed to. We had that personal faith and trust and love in him, at a time that was crucial for young girls.”

Day said Benton-Banai was raised by his grandparents and grew up speaking Ojibwe. 

“He had a very solid spiritual foundation to his traditional and Indigenous learning, and that’s what made him, I believe, who he was,” she said. 

His book, “The Mishomis Book” is touted as the first of its kind to offer Anishinaabe families an understanding of spiritual teachings.

Benton-Banai also founded a school in St. Paul in 1972, called the Red School House, which — along with its sister school in Minneapolis — fueled a broader movement to provide alternative education for Indigenous children so they could learn while maintaining their spiritual and cultural practices, Day said.

Bellecourt said American Indian Movement's philosophy of using the sovereignty and spirituality of Indigenous people as a strength can be attributed to Benton-Banai's leadership. 

“I considered him our holy man," he said. 

Associated Press writer Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona, contributed to this report.

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