Tributes pour in for late American Indian Movement co-founder Clyde Bellecourt

Tributes pour in for late American Indian Movement co-founder Clyde Bellecourt

Throughout his 85 years of life, Clyde Bellecourt lived up to his Ojibwe name of Neegawnwaywidung. Its translation, “the thunder before the storm,” became the title of his brilliant autobiography released in 2016—nearly five decades after he and other community activists led a meeting on pressing issues like discrimination, police brutality, and the many federal policies that directly target Native Americans. Two hundred people were in attendance for what is considered the founding meeting of the American Indian Movement (AIM). Bellecourt, along with the work of co-founders Dennis Banks, Russell Means, and Bellecourt’s own brother, Vernon, would go on to advocate for Indigenous rights for all their lives. Bellecourt was the last surviving AIM co-founder when he passed away Tuesday from cancer.

“Indian people had no legal rights centers, job training centers, community clinics, Native American studies programs, or Indian child welfare statutes. There were no Indian casinos or Indian schools, no Indian-preference housing. We were prohibited from practicing our spirituality. It was illegal to be in our country,” Bellecourt wrote in his memoir. “The Movement changed all that.” Since AIM’s founding, the group has helped establish the nation’s first Indian health care provider in an urban area and sponsored the nation’s first Indian housing project, known as Little Earth of United Tribes—both of which are still in operation—and led some of the country’s most impactful protests for Indigenous rights. Throughout those pivotal moments in advancing Indigenous rights, including the Bellecourt-led Trail of Broken Treaties march, Bellecourt’s “confrontation politics” paid a pivotal role.

Bellecourt’s seminal 1971 speech, “Custer died for your sins,” delivered at Augsburg College, offers an unflinching look at forced assimilation and the issues that prompted the Trail of Broken Treaties to begin its caravan a year later. AIM and other groups called for the ability of Native American leaders to create treaties and the abolition of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Bellecourt was honest about his experiences and how the many leaders who came before ensured the survival of Native Americans, who continue to fight to this day for rights that never should’ve been taken from them.

“We feel as a movement today that we owe something in honor of these great leaders that are never recognized in your history books. We feel that we owe them something and we are going to carry out their way of life. What they believe is right and what is wrong for their people. We must do that today,” Bellecourt said in his speech, at one point adding, “We know, as a movement, as Indian people, that we have to be just as militant, just as militant as Crazy Horse, Gall, and the other great chiefs.” Bellecourt called for the involvement of youth activists who he believed would carry that torch first lit by Native American ancestors. It was something he fought for all his life and continued fighting for until prostate cancer forced him to step away from AIM in 2020.

After a dinner held with Bellecourt in 2019, current Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan praised the activism that finally led to progress and opportunities for young Indigenous folks like her growing up. “I know that I am in the role of lieutenant governor because Clyde Bellecourt cleared a path for so many folks in the American Indian community,” Flanagan said in an interview with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. She offered similar praise for Bellecourt upon the news of his passing.

Today, we lost a civil rights leader who fought for more than a half century on behalf of Indigenous people in Minnesota and around the world. Indian Country benefited from Clyde Bellecourt’s activism – he cleared a path for so many of us. Journey well, Neegawnwaywidung.

— Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan (@LtGovFlanagan) January 11, 2022

Lawmakers throughout Minnesota fondly remembered Bellecourt, including Gov. Tim Waltz, District Attorney Keith Ellison, and Minnesota state Sen. Mary Kunesh, whose words deeply echo Bellecourt’s own hopes for young activists to continue building upon AIM’s work.

It is up to us, now, the survivors, to live our lives in fullest and best way, making positive change for the next seven generations. By doing that, we pay the greatest tribute to the life Clyde Bellecourt lived and the legacy he leaves us. Rest In Peace🌿

— Mary K Kunesh (@MaryKunesh9) January 12, 2022

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