Over nearly half a century, Pat Bellanger was a voice and unwavering advocate for American Indians in the Twin Cities, the United States and internationally, on issues from treaty rights to social welfare programs.

She died Thursday at Methodist Hospital of pneumonia at age 72, her daughter, Lisa Bellanger, said Friday. Her Ojibwe name was Awanakwe, pronounced “A-wanna-kway,” which means “water woman.”

One of the founders of the American Indian Movement (AIM) in 1968, an Indian activist organization that began in Minneapolis, she was an unassuming leader who participated in some of the seminal Indian protests of the modern era, including the takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C., in 1972, the occupation of Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1973, and last year’s mass march in Minneapolis to protest the Washington Redskins’ nickname.

“For years, she was the leading female spokesperson for Indian causes,” said attorney Larry Leventhal, who frequently represented Indian activists. “She was known as Grandmother AIM.”

Bellanger traveled the world as a founder and board member of the International Indian Treaty Council, recognized by the United Nations as a nongovernmental organization with consultative status.

“She was renown at a grass-roots level all the way to an international level for her ability to communicate the issues of indigenous people, and indigenous women as well,” said Bill Means, another council founder and board member.

“From the first time she met you there was a smile and a joke. She could certainly light up a room,” he added.

An Ojibwe, she grew up on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation and came to the Twin Cities, where she met other young Indian activists.

“She was involved in all the protests,” said her daughter, Lisa. “I went to many of them as a child.”

Bellanger was one of the founders of Women of All Red Nations (WARN), and was quoted in a 1979 Minneapolis Tribune article in connection with a reception held at the home of Mark Dayton, long before he became governor.

“I prefer to stay in the background, to work behind the scenes,” she was quoted as saying. “There is a lot to be done organizing things like the protest march against [nuclear power] last summer.”

Reporter Jim Parsons, who frequently wrote about Indian issues, continued, “Regardless of what Bellanger’s personal preferences may be, she is a leader. She isn’t as well known like Clyde Bellecourt and Russell Means, but she is chairwoman of AIM’s chapter in St. Paul. And she is a spokeswoman for the movement at times … and she has appeared before a U.N. conference in Geneva.”

“I’ve lived a long time and done a lot of things,” she told Larry Long, a local folk-singing troubadour who interviewed her several years ago for a song he helped schoolchildren write about her.

Long’s wife, Jacqueline Long, now a Hennepin County public defender, was working for the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis in the 1970s when she said she met Bellanger, who told her, “We need you to help our people in the court system.” Jacqueline Long said Bellanger was concerned that many American Indian youth were being lost to white foster homes and white adoptions. She said Bellanger helped to lobby for the Indian Welfare Act, a national law that requires Indian children to first be placed with the family, then families in the same tribe before other placements are considered.

“She helped create programs in the Twin Cities that implemented that law, programs for women who had lost their children to alcohol abuse, helping them back on their feet and get reconnected to Indian culture,” Long said. She said hundreds of mothers were reunited with their children thanks to Bellanger’s work.

“She said her grandfather, who raised her, said she should be proud of her people and should live to protect them,” Long recounted.

Besides her daughter, Lisa, Bellanger is survived by a son, Michael, also of Minneapolis, and six grandchildren.

A wake and memorial meeting will be held Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Minneapolis Indian Center, 1530 E. Franklin Av., Minneapolis.


Twitter: @randyfurst