A Lifetime of Cultural Teachings and Activism Remembered as Benton-Banai Passes On
By Joe Morey
Eddie Benton-Banai, a Lac Courte Oreilles tribal elder and well-known spiritual leader throughout Indian Country, passed away on Nov. 30 at a care center in Hayward. He was 89 years old. Following eight years teaching at Shingwauk Kinoomaage Gamig/Shingwauk University near Sault Ste Marie, he returned home to LCO in 2017 with health issues.
Bawdwaywidun Banaisee, Grand Chief of the Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge, (Ojibway Anishinabe, Fish Clan,) of Lac Courte Oreilles, was born March 4, 1931, in a traditional wigwam in what was once an Ojibway village along the shores of Round Lake just outside of Hayward.
Benton-Banai was the spiritual founder of the American Indian Movement and helped create the organization in 1968 after meeting Clyde Bellecourt in prison where he launched a cultural program.
According to an Associated Press article, 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 that 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,” the AP article stated.
Benton-Banai was very active with AIM in his early days and was present at the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973.
According to an article at Oyate.com, Benton-Banai said he was, “Never without the sound of the drum, without the sound of music, since before my birth I began to hear the drum, even as I was in my mother’s womb.”
Benton-Banai has a degree in education and a master's degree in business. His obituary states he was a tireless and gifted educator, a leading voice in cultural restoration including his sharing with the world, the Seven Grandfather Teachings. He founded the Red School House, in St. Paul Minnesota, an Indigenous controlled education institute based on the belief that education should include Indigenous spiritual and cultural teachings. There are countless Indigenous Educational Institutions and programs today that were founded upon the knowledge and philosophy he shared.
Benton-Banai was the founding academic and spiritual advisor at Shingwauk Kinoomaage Gamig/Shingwauk University, according to an article at Sootoday.com. He also played an important role in crafting the historic government agreement between Shingwauk and Algoma University College as well as achieving accreditation from the World Indigenous Nations on Higher Education Consortium (WINHEC).
Lisa Bellanger, executive director of the National American Indian Movement and Benton-Banai's former assistant, said he was instrumental in the group's work using treaties to protect the rights of Indigenous people,” the AP article stated.
“He was also part of a team that pushed for the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, she said, as government policies stifled or outlawed religious practices. The law safeguarded the rights of American Indians to practice their religion and access sacred sites,” the article noted.
Bellanger said Benton-Banai also helped launch the International Indian Treaty Council, which advocates for the rights of Indigenous nations to govern themselves, and for the protection of tradition, culture and sacred land.
The following statement was issued today by Garden River First Nation:
Today we mourn the passing of a great knowledge keeper and spiritual leader, Dr. Eddie Benton-Banai, Bawdwaywidun from Lac Court Orielles Band of Ojibways in Wisconsin and a relative from the Fish Clan, stated Chief Any Rickard.
Eddie was a leader in the early days in advancing Anishinaabe-controlled education and cultural-based education based on Anishinaabe philosophy and our sacred prophesies.
Eddie led the effort in revitalizing our traditional governance institutions by planning and organizing the historic gatherings here in Garden River First Nation in 1992 and 2007 by rekindling the sacred fire of the Three Fires Confederacy. Moments in time that will live on forever in the sounding of the voice of the Little Boy Water Drum and the lowering of our Teaching Lodges.
As the academic and spiritual advisor for Shingwauk Education Trust, Eddie was instrumental in crafting the historic Covenant Agreement between Shinwauk and Algoma University College and achieving accreditation from the World Indigenous Nations on Higher Education Consortium (WINHEC).
The Mishomis book, The Voice of the Ojibway, by Eddie is a resource guide of our spiritual history that is utilized by many modern-day learning institutions and to offer a true account of the Anishinaabe.
Eddie was a great friend to many people in garden River and was a special friend and brother to former Chief Darrell Boissoneau who walked with him in restoring the true vision of Chief Shingwauk and the idea of a Teaching Lodge.
We offer our prayers and condolences to the Benton-Banai family and to his traditional family in the Three Fires Lodge on this immense loss of a great leader, protector and warrior.