Over the past 48 years, one of the principal figures in the national movement to end discrimination and right centuries of injustices against American Indians has been an Ojibwe man from Minneapolis, Clyde Bellecourt.
He is one of the founders of the American Indian Movement (AIM), which has had a big impact on how America views American Indians and on how they view themselves. The group has played a pivotal role in some of the most famous struggles of the era, including the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., in 1972; the occupation of Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1973, and the struggle against the use of Indian mascots on professional and school athletic teams.
Bellecourt, 80, has now published his story, written by Jon Lurie based on interviews with Bellecourt, called “The Thunder Before the Storm,” his Indian name. The publisher is the Minnesota Historical Society Press.
It’s a partisan account in which Bellecourt details the fights and feuds of the Indian struggle, which paralleled the rise of other social movements in the 1960s.
“Clyde is a very important person whose trajectory took him through this really crucial time in American history,” said Ann Regan, editor-in-chief of Minnesota Historical Society Press.
Born and raised on the White Earth Indian Reservation, Bellecourt was locked up in Stillwater prison in the 1960s and found himself in solitary confinement and contemplating suicide. Another Indian prisoner, Edward Benton-Banai asked him to form an Indian Folklore Group, and Bellecourt began to gain an appreciation for his own history and culture that eventually led him to join others in the formation of AIM in 1968.
“He found his voice in Stillwater,” said Regan. “He learned how telling his story could change people’s minds and hearts and he hasn’t stopped speaking since.”
In the book, Bellecourt writes about others in the Indian movement: women activists including Pat Bellanger, Gladys Bissonette and his wife, Peggy; and other AIM leaders, such as Dennis Banks and his late brother, Vernon Bellecourt. He offers kind words for non-Indian allies, including Lutheran Church executive Paul Boe and federal Judge Michael Davis.
He also recounts conflicts over the years and acknowledges his own failings, in particular his decision to try cocaine. That led him to addiction and to selling LSD to a pair of federal agents. He pleaded guilty in 1986 and went to prison for two years.
“I’ve made mistakes in my life, and this was one of the worst,” he wrote in the book.
Bellecourt said in an interview he wanted to show his grandchildren that he tried to change things for the better and “that Indian people can stand up and demand what is rightfully theirs.”
“I call it confrontation politics,” he said. “Go knock on the doors of the police department, city council, the mayor’s office or the Bureau of Indian Affairs. If they don’t hear, you knock a little louder, and if they still don’t hear you, you got to push the damn door down.”
A publication celebration is planned Nov. 4 at 7 p.m. at the American Indian Center, 1530 E. Franklin Av., Minneapolis.