It didn't take long before Dennis and I shared our first of many laughs. I had taken his photo and showed it to him. He liked it and quipped that I had made him look good. Our friendship blossomed from there.
Dennis was in Robeson County as part of his Longest Walk across America, nearly fifty years after his initial journey with the American Indian Movement (AIM). Dennis co-founded AIM in 1968, a grassroots organization advocating for indigenous peoples. Under his leadership, AIM embarked on the 1972 Trail of Broken Treaties, a cross-country walk that culminated in the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., protesting the government's failure to honor treaties. In 1973, Dennis participated in the Wounded Knee 'occupation,' resulting in a 71-day siege with the government. Dennis faced conviction but found refuge in California instead of going to prison.
After resolving his legal challenges, Dennis remained committed to Indigenous rights activism until the end of his life. That's how I met him; he was still on the road.
Remarkably, Dennis was not bitter or filled with anger. He sought justice and fairness but harbored no hate.
Given his background, Dennis had every reason to be resentful. Born in 1937 on Leech Lake Indian Reservation in Minnesota, he endured the harsh reality of forced government boarding schools and experienced the brutality of systematic oppression firsthand.
Yet, I can't recall a single instance when Dennis exhibited hate or cruelty. He was passionate, yes, but never hateful. Dennis possessed a rare ability to embrace his cultural identity with pride while transcending it to connect with the universal in all of us. He was that exceptional individual who listened as attentively as he spoke and thought.
When we captured this photograph of him toward the end of his life, Dennis aimed to present a fusion of the traditional and the contemporary. He cherished culture and tradition but understood that culture is a living, vibrant entity. Dennis was actively involved with youth organizations, addressing substance abuse issues among Native youth.
We took this portrait of him, now part of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian's collection, in a longhouse. He wore both traditional attire and a modern jacket adorned with a youth organization's emblem. My children and I sought to recreate the dramatic lighting effect seen in classical Hollywood posters, portraying Dennis as the true hero he was. Although he passed in 2017, his legacy continues to resonate across Turtle Island.