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Dick Bancroft, Storyteller, July 21, 1927 – July 16, 2018

COURTESY OF BANCROFT FAMILY

BY LAURA WATERMAN WITTSTOCK

Dick was born in St Paul, MN on July 21, 1927 to parents who were both industrious and creative, and they wanted their son Dick to be the same. He shoveled walks and did many other chores for nickels, following his father’s admonition of saving half of what he earned. Along the way he learned to care for farm animals and milk cows. But these were chores. Dick had ideas and wanted to express them in images.

As a child, Dick earned a small plastic Kodak camera. He began to take his own pictures. They were no more than two inches square, but they were so cherished, that he had them in his collection at life’s end. There were pictures of the family, the dog, and the car. But Dick wanted more than that. Above all, he wanted a real camera.

At that time his family subscribed to the magazine “LIFE,” with its brilliant pictures of famous people and the news. Dick spent hours each time the magazine was delivered. The magazine was his doorway to the beauty and atrocities then going on in the world. After WWII, Dick and Debbie married. She had given him a 35mm camera, his first real camera.

Dick got interested in leaving St. Paul, perhaps to do Peace Corps work in Africa. Instead he went to Nairobi, Kenya for the Presbyterian Church of East Africa. His supervisor was John Gottu. There he learned the limitations of what can be done to help people.

He traded his Argus for a Pentax and discovered the beauty of portraits. Some of those are displayed prominently in the Bancroft home.

What he learned in Africa came back as he and Debbie went to New York and Washington, D.C. to watch the peace movement unfold. He took several photos that were published by the St. Paul Dispatch/Pioneer Press.

Then, while considering a request from the St. Paul American Indian Movement, he met Pat Bellanger and was introduced to the Indian community. It seemed that events were both at a tinder point and relief for much needed support. The Naval Air Station was taken over briefly near the metropolitan airport and federal funds arrived for long needed social and educational programs.

For over forty years Dick traveled with the American Indian Movement to sit-ins, occupations, schools, conferences and tribunals. “Get Dick Bancroft,” was the common cry when a new development in the movement’s efforts arose. Some of Dick’s most iconic pictures are taken from great heights about which he himself said, “ I had to get up high…I had to get altitude. {When} I am on my knees to get the feel of my subject…that isn’t very interesting to me and it doesn’t really reveal that much. “

DICK BANCROFT
The Fourth Russell Tribunal Nov. 1980 in Rotterdam, Holland. The Russell Tribunal, also known as the International War Crimes Tribunal or Russell-Sartre Tribunal was a private body organized by British philosopher and Nobel Prize winner Bertrand Russell and hosted by French philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre under the direction of the Russell Foundation.

Whichever he did, long shots or portraits, Dick Bancroft was a storyteller like no other, and his photographs tell that story.

He died on July 16th. Dick is preceded in death by his parents, Rich and Polly; his son, Bill; and his sister Polly Hebbie. He is survived by his wife, Debbie; son, Hunter (Helga Lange); and daughters, Ann, Carrie (Roberto Gutierrez) and Sarah (Andrew Bancroft-Howard). Dick’s cherished grandchildren are Alma, Maya and Saman Gutierrez and Morgan, Frank and Charlie Bancroft-Howard. Dick’s family plans to hold a celebration to honor his life among his extensive friends and family to be announced in the near future. Memorials can be made to Neighborhood House, the AIM Interpretative Center or an organization of your choice.

____________

Author’s note: Dick and I met in the mid 1970s at Red School House in St. Paul in the middle of a campaign to walk from the State Capitol to a point in Minneapolis and back again, raising funds for the school along the way. Excitement grew when the actor Will Sampson (Dances with Wolves) joined the effort. Decades went by. Dick served on my board for ten years (MIGIZI Communications), and it seemed our friendship has just mellowed into a sort always there, always trustful comfort. Then Dick proposed a picture-based history of AIM for the 70s to 80s decade. My writer’s side balked a bit and argued we would leave readers a little short without a longer story. We Are Still Here, 2013 Minnesota Historical Society Press, is the result.

A Photographic History of the American Indian Movement. Photography by Dick Bancroft, Text by Laura Waterman Wittstock, Introduction by Rigoberto Menchu Tum
The American Indian Movement, founded in 1968 in Minneapolis, burst into that turbulent time with passion, anger, and radical acts of resistance. Spurred by the Civil Rights movement, Native people began to protest the decades—centuries—of corruption, racism, and abuse they had endured. They argued for political, social, and cultural change, and they got attention.
The photographs of activist Dick Bancroft, a key documentarian of AIM, provide a stunningly intimate view of this major piece of American history from 1970 to 1981. Veteran journalist Laura Waterman Wittstock, who participated in events in Washington, DC, has interviewed a host of surviving participants to tell the stories behind the images.
The words of Russell Means, Dennis Banks, Clyde Bellecourt, Eddie Benton Banai, Pat Bellanger, Elaine Salinas, Winona LaDuke, Bill Means, Ken Tilsen, Larry Leventhal, Jose Barreiro, and others tell the stories: the takeovers of federal buildings and the Winter Dam in Wisconsin, the founding of survival schools in the Twin Cities, the Wounded Knee trials, international conferences for indigenous rights, the Trail of Broken Treaties Caravan and the Longest Walk for Survival, powwows and camps and United Nations actions. This is the inside record of a movement that began to change a nation.

 

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