Vernon Bellecourt: A lifetime of protest

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM and PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: October 14, 2007 - 11:39 PM

The activist, who died Saturday, was a major player in a tense, pivotal time in American Indian history.

As a youngster, Vernon Bellecourt heard stories of how the people of his northern Minnesota White Earth reservation lost their land to unscrupulous whites at the turn of the 20th century and suffered profound poverty as a result. His life would be different, he decided.

And it was for a while. He opened a chain of successful hair salons in St. Paul, then moved to Denver to sell real estate. "I was going to become a millionaire," he told the Star Tribune in 1999.

But his younger brother, Clyde, who stayed in Minnesota and became an activist, changed that. "I'm trying to win back the land," Clyde told Vernon, "and you're selling it."

Vernon Bellecourt soon came home for good.

The self-proclaimed "freedom fighter" and longtime leader of the American Indian Movement (AIM) died Saturday at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis of complications from pneumonia, said Clyde Bellecourt. He was 75.

Vernon Bellecourt once said that the American Indian Movement, an often controversial group that led a series of high-profile, sometimes violent protests in the 1970s, was "respected by many, hated by some, but ... never ignored." The same might have been said for him. He spent most of his life protesting, often drawing criticism for the form it took, sometimes from within the Indian protest movement itself.

"He was very articulate in expressing the view that American Indians have not been adequately recognized and remembered in history, or adequately dealt with as political entities in these United States," said Laura Waterman Wittstock, who met Bellecourt in 1970 when she was a reporter with the American Indian Press Association and he was representing AIM.

Takes cause abroad

While Clyde focused on the home front, Vernon became a leader of AIM's work abroad, meeting with controversial leaders such as Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, Libya's Moammar Gadhafi and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. As recently as four weeks ago, he was in Venezuela to talk with President Hugo Chavez about his program for providing heating assistance to American Indian tribes.

Most pressing in recent years was his fight against the use of Indian mascots and symbols for sports teams, such as the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians. He was arrested before Game 5 of the 1997 World Series for burning Cleveland's red-faced logo outside Jacobs Field, and he protested in Atlanta at Braves playoff games throughout the 1990s.

"Because of Vernon and other activists, fewer students in this country will have to tolerate this problem when they go to school," said Brenda Child, associate professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota.

"I don't think a lot of people in the Indian community thought there would be this kind of success in the mascot campaign," said Robert Warrior, author of "Like a Hurricane: American Indian Activism From Alcatraz to Wounded Knee" and an English professor at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.

While AIM succeeded in raising Americans' consciousness of Indian issues, it also participated in a number of events that featured violence and internal dissension.

"When you look at AIM actions ... mistakes were made and there are numerous criticisms [of their actions] and many of them are fair," Warrior said. "But what you see Vernon and the other AIM leaders doing was work that other native organizations were not doing. ... They were reaching out and trying to respond to the needs of people whose needs were not being met."

Bellecourt grew up on the White Earth reservation. "Although we all lived in poverty, we lived a better life than most people," he told the Star Tribune in 1999.

He was a disciplined student who learned his prayers from the Catholic nuns of St. Benedict's parochial school in White Earth. But the lessons in life he learned were not always pleasant.

"To this day, I can't stand the smell of Lifebuoy soap, because a racist teacher shoved a whole bar of it in my mouth," he recalled.

In Minneapolis, where the family moved when he was 16, Bellecourt quit school. After a series of odd jobs, he was convicted of robbing a bar in St. Paul and sentenced to St. Cloud prison when he was 19.

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