Native American leader Dennis Banks died over the weekend at 80.
Before his family could bury him, the media buried Banks’s friendship with one of the twentieth century’s most prolific mass murderers. The obituaries offered obligatory mentions of Jane Fonda, Marlon Brando, and other high-profile supporters. They curiously omitted the name Jim Jones.
Banks helped found the American Indian Movement (AIM), participated in the occupation of Alcatraz Island, and led an armed occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Jones, on the other hand, dyed his hair black to buttress false boasts of Native American ancestry. Sill, Banks stood by Jones when he knew better not to.
“Many Indian people when in need for family groceries have called upon us and when we run dry I feel secure because I know that I can place a call to the Peoples Temple and that these families will eat tonight,” Banks claimed in defense of Jones when questions arose of criminal wrongdoing. “This has happened often. And it will no doubt happen again tomorrow.”
In late 1977, after Jones had fled the country in the wake of press exposes that outlined his fake faith healings, orchestration of brutal beatings of followers, and various schemes pilfering money from his supporters, Banks came out with a fantastic story alleging the government attempted to blackmail him to speak out against Jones. In exchange for him condemning Jones, Banks said the deal commanded that the government would side with him on an extradition hearing. He called this “obvious blackmail.”
“He said that my association with Peoples Temple could reflect very badly on my extradition,” Banks maintained in a sworn, September 6, 1977, statement. “He then asked me to make a public denunciation of Jim Jones. He assured me that if I made such a denunciation, the rulings on my extradition would go in my favor.”
The “he” referenced was David Conn, a friend of several of the Concerned Relatives banding together to rescue family members from Jones’s jungle concentration camp in Guyana. Conn did not hold any position in the federal government and denies every attempting to organize any such deal, as though he wielded such power, in his meeting with Banks.
“I wanted to talk to Banks because I respect the guy, and I was afraid that he was going to discredit himself through his association with Peoples Temple, without really knowing what they were about,” Conn then told the Berkeley Barb in an article generally sympathetic to the Temple. His worry strikes posterity as prescient.
Why did one of the founders of the American Indian Movement praise Jim Jones in the months leading up to the charismatic leader orchestrating the deaths of 918 people in Guyana in November of 1978?
The Peoples Temple frequently hosted Banks as a speaker. They lent and donated tens of thousands of dollars to him and his wife to ostensibly address legal hassles. Their widely circulated newspaper featured fawning articles about Banks. The pair shared a political outlook.
Four decades later, fawning articles about Banks appear in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and other leading newspapers. Back then, Peoples Forum stressed the friendship between Jim Jones and Dennis Banks. Today, newspapers omit their alliance entirely.