A Memory of Dennis Banks
The death of the great Native American elder and leader Dennis Banks brought back to me the time I got the chance to meet and listen to him, and to sweat with him, as well. What a powerful man, and what an amazing experience for a young hippie poet like myself at that time.
It was in the early spring of 1980. I was living in San Francisco, and one of my roommates there was a Swiss woman who went by the name of Zuni. She lived in the front room, the living room, really, of the flat I shared with several other people on Page Street. She had over-stayed her visa and was living somewhat under cover, making a little money doing re-birthing sessions right there in the living room. I’ll just say that the most amazing sounds would emanate from that room, though I never went through the experience myself.
When Zuni’s sister came to visit from Europe, Zuni told me the two of them wanted to meet a German friend at a Native American school near Davis, run by Dennis Banks. I knew who he was, and I’d recently gotten an old Datsun pickup truck and was looking to take it for a first trip. Zuni asked if I would drive them over to Davis, mentioning that I could stay and take a sweat lodge at the school. Sounded good to me, so I grabbed a sleeping bag and off we went.
The compound/school was an old army post of some kind, mostly barracks and a few shared buildings, on a flat plain outside of Davis. Several sweat lodges were arranged in a partial circle out in a courtyard. Dennis Banks was living in California then, because Governor Jerry Brown refused to allow his extradition. Later, when Brown was no longer governor, Dennis ended up having to turn himself in.
We got there near sunset, and sweated just after dark. In a short lecture before the sweat I remember Dennis saying not to worry about the heat, that no one had died from it, and that no one had ever had to get out of one of his sweats. I’d done Indian style sweats before at the Rainbow Gathering, so I thought I knew what to expect.
It was hot! Songs and prayers passed around the circle, and a pipe of tobacco. Water was poured on the glowing rocks. When the air and steam seemed too hot to breathe, I clenched my teeth and sipped air into my mouth, cooling it down before pulling it into my lungs. I remember Dennis and other Indians telling stories about the four directions and the Great Spirit, and speaking prayers asking for the healing of people they knew and of the earth. Dennis explained that in his tradition, people didn’t pray for themselves, but only for others. Other people will be praying for you, he said.
Surprisingly, deep in the heat of the sweat, Zuni’s sister said it was too much for her, and left the lodge despite Dennis’ earlier statement. He didn’t raise any objection.
After the sweat we went into a building and ate and talked. Mostly, we listened to Dennis, fascinated, as he told about Indian beliefs almost like a preacher, mingled with stories about AIM and the FBI. Lots of joking and laughter, too. As it got late, I was welcomed to just find an empty room in the largely unoccupied barracks building. I got tired and left while Dennis was still entertaining the Swiss ladies and others.
The next morning there was an early sweat. We sat around beforehand while the fire roared and heated up the rocks. I snuck off to the side to have a quick pull on my pot pipe, but Zuni’s German friend came over to me and said the Indians didn’t approve of pot. I respected that, and put the pipe away. Again we sat in the dark and sweated and sang and prayed.
After the sweat a group of us talked around the fire. A man named Jim Big Bear told me I should come to the Sun Dance that summer. He said I’d love it. His eyes got big, and he told me, in a little bit of a whisper, that during the heart of the ceremony the eagles would come. Believe it, he said. He spun his finger in a hoop motion against the sky. They come down, and they fly over us while we dance!
We drove back that afternoon to San Francisco. I never made it to the Sun Dance, and I never saw Dennis Banks again. But I think I’ve carried a little something with me from that chance meeting so long ago, some feeling that I can reach for even now, as I write these words. I’ll give a little prayer tonight, for the earth, and for the memory and the spirit of a great man I once was gifted to meet. He must be flying with the eagles now.
Ken Zimmerman Oct. 30, 2017