Interview by Svetlana Bachevanova and David Stuart
Photographer Dick Bancroft has documented the American Indian Movement(AIM) for over 40 years. He has been present at many of the movements crucial conflicts and has captured them in powerful still images. For first time his work is published as a book, "We Are Still Here: A Photographic History of the American Indian Movement."
The interview with Dick was done at his home in Sunfish Lake, MN. His story should be an inspiration to all who work for social change.
FE. Tell me what inspired you to take up photography?
DB. You mentioned LIFE magazine earlier. I was nine years old in 1936 when LIFE first came out and my parents bought a subscription. The first copy came to our house on a Friday, and from that point on I found that I could learn more by looking at pictures than I could by reading text and remembering it. I did read the captions but I even cut pictures out and put them in my album. I would come home from school for lunch and, on Fridays, I would plop down with the new issue of LIFE and consume it. So my fascination with photographs was triggered because I could learn more from a photograph than I could from a text. I couldn’t remember the text always but I could remember the images.
I was intrigued to follow the build up to World War II in 1936 and 1937. I remember photographs of the Maginot and the Siegfried lines.. I got the names from the captions but pictures were the way I learned about what was going on. LIFE contained things that happened that week and features, but for me it was current events photographically. Something not really found in the newspapers of the time or the Saturday Evening Post. I didn’t realize it at the time but seeing pictures and leaning from them was critical to my development. It was a passionate thing I did. The whole thing about how reading of a picture, getting the material out of a picture, that would inform me about what was going on – not just in Germany and France, but here too.
FE. Is that the point that you decided to be a photographer?
DB. No, I did not decide. I was intrigued by little candid cameras that were plastic, that came out of Japan at the time. They were cheap and didn’t do a very good job but I got a hold of one. Then I progressed to a box camera. I began to take photographs seriously when I went to east Africa, to Kenya.
You see these three portraits of women here on the wall? We went to Kenya in 1966. The 60s were a volatile time for us. We were young, married, with a burgeoning family. And the activities, nationally, with the civil rights movement and the change that was occurring here. I’d been raised in a conservative Republican family. I voted Republican, for Eisenhower. I knew nothing of what Eisenhower and his cohort, the Dulles brothers, were doing in Latin America, because that wasn’t reported. We didn’t have an Amy Goodman at the time.
It was strange what happened to us as a family. The peace corps started in the early 60s. Kennedy was assassinated. The civil rights movement was met with water cannons in the South. We had some disturbances here. I was on the board of a black community center here in St. Paul but I just was frustrated by what I was not doing. I was selling insurance, supporting a family, pumping kids out. It was, you know, the pattern. In those days, you went to school. When you graduated, you got a job. And right after you got a job, you got married. And after you got married, you had kids. And everybody did it. You were really weird if you didn’t do this. Some of my gay and lesbian friends got married anyway because the momentum of this swept them up.
In 1966, we ended up I Kenya, east Africa. I had a job like the peace corps but with the Presbyterian Church of East Africa. While we were there, with four kids at the time, I realized I would have to explain what in the world I was doing in east Africa in the middle of the 60s. Why did I stop selling insurance in St. Paul? Why did I stop being a Republican? Why did I go to east Africa to live with black folk? In those days, my father would refer to them as negroes. I experienced an explosion of information and cultural awareness in east Africa.
When I got over there, I bought a pretty good camera, a Pentax, because everybody was photographing the animals. And I photographed the animals too, but the intriguing part of east Africa were the people. And the women in these portraits (portraits on his living room wall) came and sat one day. They were destitute. They came and sat on the grass one day in front of a building where milk was being dispensed for their kids. I sat down with them and photographed them with a 50mm lens and I couldn’t believe the results I got. The dignity, the strength, of these people. The power of these three images to me are my symbols. They’re the ones that transformed me into realizing that people like that tell the story better than animals do. And the real story in east Africa was not the animals and the tourism. It was these people, who were destitute, their courage and their strength.
I needed to explain my experience back here, what these people were like, these black African people. By taking pictures of them, oodles of pictures, and bring them back I felt I could show what we experienced in east Africa. The camera became for me a tool. Instead of talking about our experience in east Africa, I could show it. I have a dissolve unit. I did slideshows in churches and schools and right here in my living room, to explain what was going on in east Africa. The camera was the tool for me to convey what was going on in that part of the world.
I went back to traditional way of operating, which was to be on the Health and Welfare Planning Commission of the United Way in St. Paul. And they had a request in 1970, 1968, from the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the American Indian Center to fund their two operations. And I was asked to be a chairman of the small committee to research this, to find out who the people were and what the were after. Well, the hard part was to find Indians. They were the invisible ones, the invisible minority.
There was a name at the bottom of the letter of request. I took that name and found that person. Her name was Pat Bellanger. She is a dear friend to this day. I went to see her and I said, “Where are you guys? I mean, I don’t see any Indians.” The perception of what an Indian would look like was a feather on the head, or a buckskin skirt or whatever, beadwork. All this was not evident in the urban setting. They were the, as I say, the invisible minority. I then pursued them through Pat, and interviewed them, and we got the annual ongoing grant of $25,000 for the American Indian Movement. This was peanuts for the United Way. They were just clearing the requests.
All of a sudden, within several months of getting the first installment of that grant AIM went out and took over a building at the Naval Station. It’s in the book. It’s the first action that the AIM pulled off. All of a sudden, I had to explain to the United Way what these ungrateful Indian people were doing taking over a government building after we give them this money. That’s not what we gave them the money for. And there were lots of questions raised. And I became, all of a sudden without knowing it, as I look back at it, I refer to myself now as an Indian advocate who uses a camera.
I had to get up in front of the board of the United Way and explain what this takeover was about. Well, that was a little bit awkward, but I did have pictures of them. And I said they weren’t violent. They just went in and took over an empty building, which they are entitled to do by contract. When the government no longer needs or uses a building or a property, it reverts to the previous owner. In this case, it was the American Indians – not the movement, but Indian people. I remember one question I got that was kind of revealing. There were two organizations that each got the $25,000, the American Indian Center and the American Indian Movement. And a vice president of Northwest Airlines at the time said in the meeting, “I don’t understand why we have two Indian groups. Why don’t they merge?” And I responded in a very smart aleck way, “Why don’t you ask the Presbyterians to merge with the Episcopalians and see how far you get?” And that became my role. The more I was a smart aleck like that, the less I was invited to respond.
But my pictures were speaking, because sometimes they were published in pamphlets, magazines locally here, newspapers. But, by and large, I went back to the slideshow to explain who these people were and what they were doing. And then the events in the book go chronologically for the period of the 70s, from ’71 to ’81. And that was the period of the politics of confrontation. The Indian people began to feel their oats and they were challenging the churches. They were challenging the urban setting, housing, health care, the legal abuse of Indians in the courts and, particularly, police brutality against Indian people. The cops would pick up Indians alleged to have been drinking excessively on Franklin Avenue when they came out of the bars and the pubs. They would rough them up, beat them up, and throw them in a cell overnight and then release them in the next day. That was a pattern, that police brutality, and the attitude of the dominant society went along with it, allowed it to happen. And the politics of confrontation were challenging that. And that’s what the 70s were all about, and that’s what’s in the book.
I just happened to use the camera every time, or all the time. The more I used it, the more I was called upon by Clyde Bellecourt and Vernon Bellecourt, Pat Bellanger and Dennis Banks, the leadership of the movement. They would say to me, “You gotta cover this. You gotta go there.” And that’s when my daughter said, “Not Indians again,” one day when I was on my way out the door. In those days, you can’t appreciate the fact that mine was the only camera in evidence. Indian people couldn’t afford cameras. White press photographers and others in the media were not assigned to the Indian movement. So, I was the only one there with a camera.
For the Indian community it reveals who were the leaders and what were they doing, you know, laying the groundwork for the last 42 years of Indian activity in the urban and rural settings.
FE. And at this time you were not working as a photojournalist.
DB. No, no I was not being paid. That was one of my advantages. I didn’t have a white editor leaning on me to photograph something for the society pages. No one was telling me where to go except Indians. I was tracking on Indian people wherever they were. First, in the 70’s, it was all localized, on the reservations and in the city. Then in ‘81, the Bellecort brothers said to me, with two weeks lead time, “We’re going to Nicaragua. We’ve been invited by the Sandinistas,” who had just pulled off their revolution in ’79. They invited AIM down. This is typical of the third world struggles. They want each other to know what they’re doing. And the Sandinistas looked at the American Indian Movement as a way to change what was going on in this country, as they were accomplishing in Nicaragua. I didn’t know, when I went to Nicaragua, even where it was on the map. I heard about the revolution only vaguely, in the papers. There was something about a revolution in Nicaragua. Who cares? All of a sudden I was exposed to the way the U.S. Government was operating in Latin America. When I got down there, they had defeated Samoza. Roosevelt had referred to the Samoza’s father saying, “He may be a dictator, but he’s ours.” Those were famous, famous lines of Roosevelt’s.
It was fascinating to travel with Clyde and Vernon, two of them, very large, braided, bedecked with turquoise wristlets, going into Indian country in Nicaragua. The Miskito Indian were short and black and spoke some English. These were supposed to be Indians? And they had their own language that Clyde and Vernon did not know. I can remember the Miskito Indians in fits looking at Clyde and Vernon and laughing, because they’d never seen anybody with braids, and this big. Where’d these guys come from, Mars? I mean what are they?
The Moskitos had their language and were Moravian Christians. They lived on the Atlantic coast, isolated from the Sandinistas because there was no roads connecting the east with the west. I suddenly got educated about Latin America, exposed to it on the ground. And againmy learning process was not to read about the revolution. I was part of it, in a sense, because I was riding around with a sub-comandante with an AK-47 in his lap. That is not St. Paul, Minnesota.
My education just exploded. And again, my photographs, looking back at them, I’m amazed at what I experienced in that one visit, in two weeks time. Then I heard about El Salvador and Guatemala, and I went down with Vernon to Chiapas, Mexico, to photograph the refugees. They were coming across from Guatemala. Over 200,000 Guatemala Mayan Indians had been slaughtered by a government supported by the U.S. and Israel. Rios Montt is still around. He’s responsible for the slaughter of over 200,000 Maya Indians. What’s different, about here or there? Clyde used to say to South American Indians, “You know, we live in the belly of the monster. The monster is now feeding on you, the Central American Indian.”
I become caught up by all of the hypocrisy that exists from the dominant power up here, vis a vis Latin America, exercising control by supporting a dictator. We did it in Chile. We did it in, uh, Ecuador. We did it in Guatemala. Uh, we did it in- We tried to do it in Mexico. We did it in Panama. The pattern is still there. It’s still United States foreign policy, with NAFTA economically and with military support for those in power. What happened to me is, I experienced this through the Indian experience. And I became radicalized and changed.
FE. Were you ever approached by somebody from Russia, from the Soviet Union?
DB. No, I wasn’t. Russians were very interested. And they had a Peltier defense committee in Russia. I didn’t go to Russia because it was very short-lived. But I did go on the invitation of Khadafi to Lybia in ’87 and ’88. Khadafi called Native Americans “the red men of North America.” And he invited dissident groups to come to Libya to explain his revolution against the dominance of Italy over Libya. He was quite sympathetic in those years’87 and ’88 – quite different than what he was like later.
FE. So you were something between a photographer and a social activist.
DB. Well, I became a social activist because of what the Indians taught me directly and indirectly, how they revealed their struggles to me. It started with police brutality and went on in every area. And every time you turn around, they’re, as I said earlier, the last ones to be mentioned as a minority group in this country. And they should be the first.
FE. You never sold you photographs. You were just a social activist documentarian?
DB. There were two reasons that I was always called by my Indian friends to document their actions. One of them was, I never sold pictures. I couldn’t be accused being in it for the gain or ripping off the Indian community. The second part was that I never approached an Indian woman in any way, shape or manner. I respected the Indian female community. I photographed them, but I never took advantage of the access I was granted. Also, I’m a documentary photographer. My photographs are not posed. I’m not setting up a picture. I go to events and use a telephoto lens and shoot what’s going on, who is there in the public arena. When a picture of mine is published, I ask for a copy of the publication in return for using the picture.
FE. So, the book is the first time you put all the images together?
DB. It’s the first time. I did a mock-up of the book and I went into the Minnesota Historical Society, in St. Paul, and laid the book out and asked if they’d be interested in publishing this group of photographs? There was no text at the time. And they jumped on it. I was amazed. I didn’t think it was that good, you know? I was also interested in having a text but I want the text to be the voices of those who were depicted in the book. Its not my text. I will just do a short introduction. For the text, I got Laura Waterman Wittstock, who’s a professional Indian journalist, a Seneca from Upstate New York. I got her to do the interviews and to put together the text. So it’s the voices of Indian people though the images were done by a non-Indian. That was very important to me. The History Society was also very eager to do this. Because they knew, and its true, they had neglected the Indian perspective on historical events from way back in the 1800s. They had always published and talked about and shown and done books from the dominant society’s, perspective.
FE. The local history of Indians didn’t have broad interest?
DB. You probably don’t know, because most people don’t, that the largest mass hanging ever to occur in the United States happened in Minnesota.
One of the most treacherous things that ever occurred in this country versus Indian people, versus anybody (they never hung thirty-eight slaves at the same time). Thirty-eight Native American men were hung simultaneously during the Civil War, in 1862, in Mankato, Minnesota, for allegedly conspiring and pulling off a revolt. Originally, they were going to hang over 300 but the Episcopal bishop in southern Minnesota, by the name of Whipple appealed to Lincoln to pardon all or some of the Native Americans. Lincoln pardoned all but thirty-eight. The fact that few people know of this incident is an example of why I wanted to publish the book: it’s high time we talk about Indian issues.
FE. Did you photograph the AIM uprising at Wounded Knee?
DB. No. I couldn’t get in, and neither could Pat Bellanger. Pat was my entre in those days. She was the one that said “You gotta do this. You gotta do that.” And then she said “We gotta go to Wounded Knee.” We tried to get in. We didn’t have a contact for getting in and because it was blockaded by the B.I.A. cops and the F.B.I, we didn’t want to get there and not be able to get in. We thought it would last all year. This is the one biggie that I wasn’t there for.
FE. When did you meet Leonard Peltier?
DB. I photographed Leonard in Marion, Illinois, the maximum security prison of the United States, the first time I think was in 1984. I never saw him as a free man. He’s been in for 38 years. I photographed him four times. The last time in 2000.
His case is a total injustice perpetrated by the FBI. Because the FBI needs to have somebody pay a price for the loss of two agents. The FBI does not want Leonard out because then the false information around his trial will be revealed. So, Leonard is being sacrificed as the necessary killer, and the FBI spends a lot of money and time keeping him in prison. It’s appalling that we have to sacrifice a person like that. Leonard has amazing strength.. He calls it his sundance.
He has great difficulty in knowing what’s going on in the Indian community. One of my major issues right now is to get him a copy of the book, with those four pictures of him taken during my visits. He’s never seen those. I’ve been told that I can get the publisher of the book to send him a copy. I can’t contact him.
FE. Any particular images in the book that have the most emotional impact for you?
DB. This picture (p. 139) from the Longest Walk has a story behind it. I convinced a motel owner to get to the fourteenth floor. I told him that down this street, in Silver Springs, Maryland there were a whole bunch of Indians coming. And he looked at me as though I was crazy and said, “There aren’t any Indians out there. What are you talking about?” I said, “I gotta get to the top, because I want to take a picture down on all these Indians coming down the avenue.” He said, “You’re out of your mind.” But I convinced him and, when we walked out on the balcony and they were coming down the avenue, he was stunned. I always try to get a perspective from above or below, rather than shoot eyeball to eyeball. I love to get down low, with somebody standing, and shoot up. But this shot from above. That’s the way I got that one.
This next image (p. 146) was up at White Earth in the reservation. I wanted to get a group picture, because historically there was always a group picture taken at Indian activities. I got up on the roof and, to get everybody’s attention at one time, I pretended to fall. I slipped and started to roll over. Everybody was, “Oh my God, he’s going to fall off,” and then, I got up and click, got the picture. I learned these little things as I went along.
One more I wanted to tell you about. This one. Now, bear in mind I took that picture in 1978. At the 25th anniversary of Wounded Knee, I was doing a slideshow in Oglala in the Pine Ridge reservation. After it was all over, I’m putting my stuff away and a woman walks up to me and says, “You have a picture of me in your slideshow.” And I looked at her and I said, “I don’t know you.” And she said, “Well, I’ve got my head down.” And I said, “My God, I’ve been looking for you for twenty-five years.” Because nobody could identify her from her outfit and she never raised her head to be photographed. She said, “I would love to have a copy of that picture for my grandchildren and my kids, ‘cause they don’t believe I ever did anything courageous. I was eighteen at the time, and I was exhausted, and I’m sitting in front of the capital building with these rose plants.” Then she said to me, “What did you do with the other seven pictures you took of me that day?” I said, “How did you know I took seven other pictures?” Because I was changing the composition, and she wasn’t moving, and I worked the flower into some, you know, changed the angle. She said, “I counted the clicks in the camera.” Twenty-five years earlier, and she’s still looking for the other seven pictures. I did have a noisy shutter at that time. I’ve visited her since and photographed her. I just sent her a copy of the book. She has cancer.
One of the sad things about the book is how many people in it are no longer with us, people who were instrumental in the movement, leadership of the movement. I wish I had done it earlier so they could have seen it. One of the things that the book helps do is revive, or inform, the next generation, and the next, about these people and what they did. The audience for this book is mainly the Indian community.
Still, take this picture (p. 142) they’re walking into Washington D.C. being met by the park police and none of them are looking at the police. They’re not showing any respect for the authorities. This is when Carter was president. He came out on the south portico and saw all these Indians, and then he went to West Germany and gave his famous speech condemning the Russians for their human rights violations, and right here we got a demo going on in his back yard about human rights violations.
Gawkers slow traffic on the right as the Longest Walk approaches Washington, DC.
The buffalo skull approaching Washington, DC with help from the youth.
A debate on the Mall about pending Indian legislation.Left to right: Russel Means, Clyde Bellecourt, Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy.
FE. What is going on now with the Indian people?
DB. The struggle is still going on. You’re going to see it this week in the degradation of Indian mascots and nicknames of sporting teams in this country. The use of the term “red skin” for a prominent football team that’s coming to town on Thursday is going to be protested. This is a current issue. And the media is beginning to finally focused on it, though this nickname, mascot issue has been going on for twenty years. But finally they’re talking about it. And they’re raising the awareness that no ethnic group in this country wants to have their slang term – nigger, red skin, savage – depicted with the reverence that we have for athletic teams as a culture.
I think that there has been tremendous improvement in the education of Indian people. There are PhDs and Masters and college graduates all over Indian country now. There are twenty-eight, I think it is, American Indian colleges on reservations producing enlightened, educated, keen minds to confront the environmental issues and the treaty issues that still exist.
FE. Are you a member of the American Indian Movement?
DB. Yep. But that doesn’t mean anything. You know, it’s a movement, it’s a direction. They don’t have formal membership. They don’t have dues. They don’t have a Board of Directors. I do serve on the board of a museum connected with it, where we’re trying to house and organize, books, a garage full of posters, a lot of large format books on Indian subjects. They will all go to this museum. Its called the American Indian Movement Interpretive Center, because some of them don’t like the word museum. We’re trying to build a facility to house the collection.