NeeGawNwayWeeDun, Clyde Bellecourt (1938-2022), Co-Founder of AIM
Long-time civil rights advocate Clyde Bellecourt of the White Earth band of Ojibwe died January 11th, leaving behind a legacy of Native changemakers. Reporter Feven Gerezgiher digs into the archives for a look into history.
A giant in the movement for American Indian lives has passed. Family confirmed the death on Tuesday morning of NeeGawNwayWeeDun, The Thunder Before the Storm, who was known by his colonial name Clyde (Howard) Bellecourt. He died of cancer in his Minneapolis home. He was 85.
In 2015, KKWE Niijii Radio interviewed Bellecourt for a series preserving and sharing wisdom from White Earth elders. Bellecourt traced his activism to prison in his late twenties. There, in helping a mentor launch a cultural program, he re-connected with Ojibwe traditions and established the foundations for what would become the American Indian Movement.
Clyde Bellecourt: It just turned my whole life around. And I figured out, soon as we got these people going about their culture, all of a sudden they’re starting to be dental technicians. They all went into AA, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous…Everything we did we excelled. (Young people went back to school, got their GED and took correspondence class out of the University of Minnesota. John Poupart who was in there for manslaughter got out and went to Hamline University, went on to Harvard, … became the head of the division of corrections for the whole prison system here in Minnesota.) So we figured it in there if we could do this and help people in jail to get their life together..then we should be able to do this on the street.
In 1968, Bellecourt and his co-founders formally started the American Indian Movement or AIM in Minneapolis. Leaders sought solutions to police brutality, the loss of Indian children, and the need for culturally-specific education and job programs. The movement quickly spread nationwide. In 1973, AIM led a 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in an infamous stand off with U.S. armed forces.
Clyde Bellecourt: Even though we were concerned about the civil rights movement and all the things that were happening in America, we discovered that our civil rights and our human rights are embedded in our treaties. So we stood on the treaty issue, on the traditional form of government. We had at one time, we had to push that. (Cus we knew that the Reservation Business Commitees and the Indian Reorganization Act was designed to terminate us in the long run, generations from now. )
Bellecourt’s quest for Native human rights spanned decades and institutions. He spearheaded the innovative American Indian OIC which since its founding has helped more than 25,000 people enter the workforce. He also played a role in the creation of the 212-unit Little Earth housing complex in South Minneapolis and the Legal Rights Center to fight against racial bias in child protective services.
Bellecourt’s work with the International Indian Treaty Council eventually led the United Nations to acknowledge the special status of Indigenous peoples throughout the world.
Reflecting on his own family history, Bellecourt said hearing details about his mother’s traumatic experience in boarding school affirmed his lifelong commitment to activism for the human rights of Native people.
Clyde Bellecourt: When they got caught her speaking Indian, she had to get down on hands and knees with a bowl of soap water and a tooth brush and scrub the floors all day. And clean out the urinals and toilets while all the other kids that gave up their language are running out playing and rap the window like, ‘Why don’t you forget about the language and come play…’) And I found out my mother never gave up. Toward the end, she told me, they tied stacks of marbles on her knees. Not just her but other children in the boarding school system to get them to break, to get them away from the language and the culture and she had to scrub floors like that. And that’s why her legs would swell and why she had arthritis…She made me cry when she told me that.
Bellecourt served as Executive Director for AIM until 2019 when he left to focus on his health.
Listen to the complete Niijii Radio interview with Clyde Bellecourt from 2015: here
Feven Gerezgiher reporting for MN Native News
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