Dennis Bowen Sr., “Our whole age group was angry”

By Christine Graef
News From Indian Country 7-08

Dennis Bowen Sr., Seneca, Bear Clan, is a former elected president of the Allegany Seneca Nation in New York State. He’s an MC for powwows, a former Fancy Dancer and co-founder of the Red Nation Singers. Bowen is currently the Wellness Program coordinator at the Tuba City Unified School District in Arizona and Chairman of the Board of Directors of the California-based Seva Foundation. Bowen is a father of two and grandfather of three.

Last summer at an education conference in California, people talked about all they’re doing in their communities these days. After the conference, a young man walked up to Dennis Bowen, Seneca, and said, “We wouldn’t have gotten this far without you guys.

“And I thought, that’s true,” said Bowen. “They have a compassion for their communities. They do their work with spirit. These young ones, struggling, some trying to get by with a bake sale, but they’ve got the energy in their eyes.”

Bowen was a member of the Cleveland Chapter of the National American Indian Movement. He participated at the Mt. Rushmore occupation in 1970, the takeover at Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington D.C., when William Veeder in the BIA leaked information to the Nations about Congressional plans to grab the water rights of the Yellowstone River Basin of southeastern Montana and northeastern Wyoming, and supported the Ojibwe’s fight for the 1983 Voight decision that affirmed their treaty rights to harvest off-reservation natural resources in northern Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

“In the early 1970s, elected leaders made fun of us,” he said. “They’d say, ‘AIM probably doesn’t even know how to spell sovereignty. After a time, we saw a lot of First Nation people entering law and education. There were so many areas of needs, all needing a voice.”

Bowen was 12 years old when the U.S. government built the Kinzua Dam on the Allegany River in 1964, flooding 9,000 acres of his homeland’s traditional farming and medicine gathering places.

This forced the people from the valley, moving cemeteries and the fire of the Longhouse. The people were relocated to suburban neighborhoods on the reservation as they watched their land being flooded by re-directed waters.

Elders wept openly. Within two years, half of them died.

Our whole age group was angry,” said Bowen. “We came through our teen years angry. So when Alcatraz happened and AIM, I was already ready for the cause because this happened in my life.”

Our whole age group was angry,” said Bowen. “We came through our teen years angry. So when Alcatraz happened and AIM, I was already ready for the cause because this happened in my life.”

That’s a volatile mix, he said, when we have an organization that will be a sounding board for that rage.

russellmeans-1colmn.gif Bowen was involved with Russell Means in 1969 in Cleveland in a group to promote an Indigenous voice in the city when Means returned from a Denver conference with Clyde Bellecourt, Dennis Banks and George Mitchell and said he’d “met some cool guys.” They joined AIM.

In 1970, Bowen was an AIM security chief during the takeover of an abandoned property at the Naval base near Minneapolis. The action was to bring focus to Indian education needs.

“We had evening meetings to train people into the Movement. About six people were in that car, many of them elders. They said, ‘We came to talk to you. In a ceremony we saw that AIM would be like a bright light. It would help the people. Then it will stop. The light will go out,’” he said.

During the takeover, a government infiltrator started a fire and tried to burn out the action, he said.

“We made everyone stay in twos and threes at the takeovers,” he said. “This guy wouldn’t. He wanted to stay by himself. When the fire started, he was missing.” Many veterans were approached by the FBI and asked if they’d become informants, he said.

When the FBI used COINTELPRO against the Black Panthers, AIM, the Brown Berets, the leaders got divided, he said. A lot of work came to a halt. People evolved into groups that went into community based programs or international efforts.

“The tension between AIM’s three main leaders grew uncomfortable,” he said. “There was a new AIM after 1974. It really was different from 1974 on. I felt it. It was easier to not show up.”

Bowen moved from Cleveland to Tuba City, Arizona, in 1971. During AIM’s 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee, Bowen and Dine’ high school students raised funds, medical supplies, food and cash to send to the Knee. Afterward, they provided an underground station for AIM members to rest, eat and travel through.

“Some came in from Montana one day in two worn out cars,” he said. “They didn’t have any money. We set them up with a place to rest up. I stayed up all night and did a painting. The next day I sold the painting and gave them the money. They went out and partied with it. I was mad.”

At Wounded Knee, one of the main speeches of Clyde Bellecourt and Dennis Banks was to say, “The door has always been closed on our people. IHS, BIA, the government has closed doors. AIM will be a Movement that never closes the door on anyone.”

“So guys with guns, alcohol, mental health problems, unstable, back from Vietnam, spousal abuse, child abuse, pistols on their hips would show up,” said Bowen. “I was old AIM. This was the new AIM.”

Many Movement people who became involved after 1973 were new AIM, he said. “I stopped by the Minneapolis AIM trials in the spring of 1974 and saw a lot of new movement people,” he said.

Bowen attended the AIM convention in White Oak, Okla., the summer after Wounded Knee.

“Guys were tossing the fed word around a lot by then,” he said. “Old AIM guys knew me. New AIM guys did not. They were suspicious of me, of everyone. There were guys with pistols on their hips, talking tough, guys with long hair arguing.”

Means, Banks and the Bellecourts didn’t know who could be trusted, he said. Rumors were setting off paranoia like wildfire. At the convention, AIM member Carter Camp was accused of being an informant. Camp confronted Clyde Bellecourt and during the argument shot Bellecourt in the stomach.

banks-dj.gif Means, Banks and the Bellecourts didn’t know who could be trusted, he said. Rumors were setting off paranoia like wildfire. At the convention, AIM member Carter Camp was accused of being an informant. Camp confronted Clyde Bellecourt and during the argument shot Bellecourt in the stomach.

“I looked at it with counselor’s eyes,” he said. “We’re losing them, I thought. There came a day when it was over. Now there’s all these organizations. If there had been these organizations back then, Kinzua Dam would never have happened. The dam in the Missouri River would never have happened.”

They were all caught up in anger back then, he said. “I was too,” he said. “It’s one of life’s experiences, to get so involved in an action that we’re willing to sacrifice our life, make ourselves expendable. We all had that ‘we’re ready to die for our people’ attitude. But after my son was born, August 1971, I wanted to work hard and live for our people.”

Since then, Bowen has watched the locally developed Nine-Voices Cultural Prevention Model promote the many voices of a community and resolve conflict, recently using the model at a National Dropout Prevention Conference and at a regional Native Youth Suicide Prevention Conference.

“I used to ask, what is it that makes us not heard,” said Bowen. “I took that question with me in 1972 into a community based counseling program. A stark reality for our people is that no one listened, no one wants to listen. But when someone is really heard, it opens the door to healing.”

The origins of our people had to do with shared leadership, not one leader, he said. There needs to be a healthy process of running a process of leadership across these time-tested teachings.

“In AIM, when leaders had hard times sharing leadership, it hurt the group,” he said. “When we see a leader not wanting to listen to the team any more, it’s a warning sign. It’s an indicator that a group won’t last.”

In 1974, AIM created the International Treaty Council.

“ITC was created with the attitude, ‘we’re not going to be heard in this country, so let’s go international,’” Bowen said. “They went to Geneva, to the United Nations. Some of us, like me, instead went into the communities.”

There was a point late in the 1970s, when some leaders said we can’t let tribalism slow us down, he said.

“I saw another point of view,” said Bowen. “People persevered because they maintained their own unique and different cultures. I would hopefully see each nation will cherish, maintain their ways and not fall under pan-Indianism.”

Despite all the splits within AIM, Bowen said he remains friends with them all.

In 1994, Bowen was elected president of the 6,500-member Seneca Nation by three votes. In 1996, Bowen returned to Arizona and worked in counseling. In 2000 he joined the board of the Seva Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides financial resources and technical support to communities in 10 countries for issues such as health, community development and environmental and cultural protection.

“When someone tells me they’re a Movement person, I listen to see where they come from,” he said. “My home listened to AIM as they came in, welcomed them, but it’s still the local people who decide.”

 

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