Other leaders of the American Indian Movement have offered their versions of AIM’s story, a Minnesota-born story of awakening and confrontation that included the 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973. Dennis Banks told his in “Ojibwa Warrior,” published in 2005. Russell Means gave his account in “Where White Men Fear to Tread” in 1996.
Now Clyde Bellecourt, 80, takes his turn.
The AIM story “has been told many times, but so far it’s been told incorrectly, as I see it, by people who never did the damn hard work of revitalizing Indian communities,” he writes. And it is that “damn hard work” that Neegonnwayweedun — his spirit name, or “The Thunder Before the Storm” — emphasizes here.
First, he tells how the man was shaped by the boy who grew up on the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota, part of a warrior family: His great-grandfather was a Civil War veteran, his father was shot and gassed during World War I. He writes about working in Red River Valley sugar beet fields and, closer to home, wild rice camps. He tells how his mother always walked with a limp, a result of being forced as a girl to scrub Indian boarding school floors with sacks of marbles tied to her knees.
Bellecourt acknowledges his personal failures, the drugs and alcohol and long absences from family. Hostile to authority since early run-ins with game wardens, he was judged a truant at 11 and spent years in prison, where he found he was “typical of the other Indians there: spiritually and emotionally bankrupt.” In response, they persuaded authorities to allow drums and sweat lodges for religious observances and created an “Indian renaissance” within prison walls.
Out of prison in 1968, Bellecourt and Banks wanted “a new organization to tackle issues like unemployment, poor housing and education, and police brutality” in Minneapolis. At their first meeting, Bellecourt said AIM’s operational style would be “confrontation politics,” and that’s what they practiced in such actions as the 1972 occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C.
He tells of his rocky relationship with Means and of AIM’s efforts to counter FBI spies and informers, including at Wounded Knee, and he vehemently denies having anything to do with the 1976 murder of Anna Mae Aquash, an AIM member who was thought by some to be an informant.
“We knew they would do everything they could to infiltrate the Movement, cause dissension, turn people against one another,” he writes.
He says he never carried a gun, even at Wounded Knee. It was the FBI, he insists, that was “the driving force behind all the violence” on the Pine Ridge Reservation, including the 1975 shootout that left two FBI agents dead and Leonard Peltier — convicted of the killings after a controversial prosecution — in prison to this day. But he says AIM’s true legacy is to be found in the schools, clinics, language centers, housing projects, casinos and other economic developments, revived spiritual activities and assertions of tribal sovereignty the movement inspired and did “the damn hard work” on.
The relative success of those efforts may be disputed, but this is Clyde Bellecourt’s story, his own account of “a tremendous fifty-year campaign during which AIM inspired unbelievable change.”
Chuck Haga is a former Star Tribune reporter who teaches media writing at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.
The Thunder Before the Storm
By: Clyde Bellecourt, as told to Jon Lurie.
Publisher: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 336 pages, $27.95.
Event: 7 p.m. Nov. 4, American Indian Center, 1530 E. Franklin Av., Mpls.