Banks was one of the founders of AIM and one of the most prominent Indian figures of the late 20th century. Banks began his career as an activist by combatting police brutality of Indians in Minneapolis, then helped organize many of the major Indian protests of this period including the occupations of Alcatraz and Mt. Rushmore, the Thanksgiving demonstration at Plymouth Rock, the Yellow Thunder protests in Gordon, Nebraska, the Trail of Broken Treaties, the face-off in Custer, South Dakota, and the occupation of Wounded Knee.
Banks leaves behind a complicated legacy. Supporters view him as an energizing figure who unapologetically fought for the rights and representation of Indians. Opponents point to a lack of systematic changes achieved by AIM and question whether the violent tactics Banks supported were worth their outcome.
Clyde Bellecourt, the seemingly more influential of the two brothers, was a high school drop-out who was incarcerated following a sequence of petty robbery and burglary crimes. In prison, he and a group of other Native inmates, including AIM founder Dennis Banks, started meeting to read and discuss Native culture and heritage. Bellecourt referred to this as the “first real Indian studies program.” These prison meetings were foundational to the creation of the American Indian Movement by these same men in 1968.
The Bellecourts moved to Minneapolis from the White Earth Reservation when the brothers were still teenagers. Both were arrested and charged with petty crimes and gained a reputation for getting into trouble. Their experience with the criminal justice system led them to speak out against police brutality and unfair treatment of Native people. Clyde and Vernon were both active in numerous protests, the most famous being the Trail of Tears and the takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1972.
However, in a shocking turn of events, in 1994, AIM banned both of the Bellecourts from further involvement with the organization. This was a result of allegations of their involvement in a series of crimes, including charges of drug dealing and working on behalf of the U.S. government to infiltrate AIM. Nevertheless, the brothers continued their activist work by starting Native sovereignty-based programs such as The National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media, the Heart of the Earth Survival School and lobbying for the release of AIM leader Leonard Peltier from federal prison. Vernon died in 2007 and Clyde is still currently involved in Native activism.
A boarding school friend of Dennis Banks, George Mitchell is credited as a cofounder of the American Indian Movement (AIM). Alongside Banks and Clyde Bellecourt, Mitchell garnered Native support for the fledgling movement in the summer of 1968. At the time of the founding, Mitchell was the Acting Director of the Indian American Youth Council in Minneapolis, MN. He was involved in the resistance movement’s earliest activism, which attempted to address police brutality in Minneapolis. Mitchell suggested “Concerned Indian Americans” (CIA) as the name for the newly founded Native resistance movement, but AIM was chosen to avoid confusing the new organization with the CIA.