Story at a glance
- Eddie Benton-Banai, co-founder of the American Indian Movement, is remembered for his advocacy of Indigenous peoples.
- Started in the late 1960s, AIM advocated for Indigenous rights and protested police violence against the community.
- The political group was formed in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and influenced by the Black Panther Party.
As protests against police violence continue in the United States, an early Indigenous activist in the fight against racism has died.
Eddie Benton-Banai, co-founder of the American Indian Movement (AIM), died on Nov. 30 at a care center in Hayward, Wis., family friend Dorene Day told The Associated Press (AP), after being hospitalized multiple times in recent years for several health issues.
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Born and raised on the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation in Wisconsin, Benton-Banai was Anishinaabe Ojibwe and went on to become a grand chief of the Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge. But his political involvement can be traced back to the time he spent in jail, where he met co-founder Clyde Bellecourt, a fellow Indigenous person.
“It started because I met Eddie in jail,” Bellecourt told AP. “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.”
In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, they and other Indigenous people were inspired to organize and bring awareness to the injustices endured by their communities, including police brutality. As a leader of the time, Benton-Banai helped push for the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 and launch the International Indian Treaty Council, advocating for the right of self-governance. And while AIM would later become known for more militant tactics, including the 1973 protest at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Benton-Banai kept his focus on his local community.
“We could always go to him with questions," said Lisa Bellanger, executive director of the National American Indian Movement and Benton-Banai's former assistant, told The Associated Press. “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.”
Today, police brutality remains a concern for Indigenous people of the United States and neighboring Canada even as law enforcement is yet to address the crisis of missing or murdered Native American women.
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