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.
He died Monday at a care center in Hayward, Wisconsin, 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 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 who had settled in Minneapolis where it is based. Members had cameras, asked police for badge numbers and monitored radio scanner traffic for mention of anyone who they might recognize as Indigenous to ensure their rights weren’t being violated – similar to what the Black Panthers were doing at the time, said Kent Blansett, an associate professor of Indigenous studies at the University of Kansas who has written about the movement.