Clyde Bellecourt moves slowly these days, using his ceremonial talking stick to steady himself after his weight dropped precipitously from a bout with stage 4 prostate cancer.
But the 82-year-old activist remains committed to the causes he embraced a half-century ago as a founder of the American Indian Movement (AIM), an organization that became the national voice of Indian activism.
He's come a long way from the kid on the White Earth Reservation who skipped school so often that he was labeled incorrigible by judges and sent off to Red Wing juvenile facility before a string of burglaries landed him in prison. It was there that an Indian inmate and spiritual leader instilled him with pride in his Ojibwe roots, leading to the formation of AIM in 1968.
Years of sometimes controversial advocacy would follow, from the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee to organizing thousands of marchers outside U.S. Bank Stadium in 2014 to protest the name and symbolism of the Washington football team.
"He's a warrior, he's not afraid to speak up," said Sandy White Hawk, director of the First Nations Repatriation Institute, which helps Indians who have gone through foster care or adoption to return home and reclaim their identity. "He goes into places where people are intimidated, and he goes in with a purpose of looking after the community."
In a recent interview, Bellecourt reflected on the battles he's fought and made it clear there's much more to do: Upon learning that Washington will be playing the Vikings in Minneapolis next season, his face brightened at the prospect of another rally.
"I'll be there, and even if I'm not there, I'll be there," he said. "My spirit will be leading the charge."
After co-founding AIM with the late Dennis Banks and others, the organization quickly grew and galvanized an entire generation of American Indians. Across the world, they exposed the genocidal treatment of Indians in the United States, including the breaking of countless treaties, and the poor conditions both on reservations and in urban centers.
They began with patrols on streets in Minneapolis to halt police brutality in 1968; staged a takeover of property at an abandoned Naval Air Station in Minneapolis in 1971; and organized a march to Washington, D.C., in 1972 called the Trail of Broken Treaties. It culminated with a 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1973, to highlight corruption on the reservation and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) injustices against Indians. A nine-month federal trial in St. Paul in 1974 ended abruptly when charges of conspiracy and assault by AIM leaders Banks and Russell Means in connection with the Wounded Knee takeover were dismissed over prosecutorial misconduct.
The AIM cause became a national rallying cry for American Indian youth, leading to the creation of specialized schools as well as college courses and departments that promoted pride in Indian culture and a re-examination of the historical record, along with the creation of public programs in the areas of health, legal aid and job training, designed to help American Indians, particularly in the Twin Cities.
"We made it clear that we were the landlords and caretakers of the country, and it was the end of the month, and the rent was due, in health, education and welfare," Bellecourt said. "They didn't get the land for nothing."
Author Gerald Vizenor was also an activist in the early days of what he called "the radical movements of Minneapolis." He was quoted in the past as calling Bellecourt an "arrogant" and "intimidating" figure, but his stance has since softened.
"There were different approaches to serving the community. Clyde Bellecourt was a dynamic leader in challenging the oppression of the police and responded very positively to criticism," he said.
'A natural leader'
Following the Wounded Knee occupation, AIM actions garnered worldwide headlines. But after that, Bellecourt shifted his focus on the advice of Peggy, his wife of 57 years who also lives with health challenges. The parents of four grown children live in south Minneapolis.
"Now it's time to come home and clean up your own backyard," she recalled telling him.
Bellecourt started developing programs for Indian people in Minneapolis, and the list of organizations he founded or helped found is long, ranging from the Little Earth of United Tribes housing development to the Minneapolis Legal Rights Center.
"He is a natural leader, a genius at organizing and bringing issues of inequality to the forefront," said U.S. District Judge Michael Davis, who was an intern and later a lawyer at the Legal Rights Center.
Elaine Salinas, former director of the now-defunct Heart of the Earth Survival School, said Bellecourt and Banks challenged all institutions, including schools, police, the churches and the justice system. She acknowledged that not everyone agreed on their tactics.
"What AIM did in this country is awaken Indian people — Indian tribes and urban Indian people who had been so beaten down," she said. "AIM said we are proud people, we are a resilient people, and we have to challenge institutions that marginalized us and destroyed our lives. It was a very powerful message."
Bellecourt's personal low point came in 1986. He became addicted to drugs and was arrested for distributing them, eventually serving two years behind bars.
"I tell young people how easy it is to get hooked on drugs," he said. "It started controlling me. … But you know? It turned out to be a blessing."
Tim Giago, publisher of Native Sun News Today in Rapid City, the largest weekly in South Dakota, used to criticize Bellecourt and AIM's tactics, especially during the Wounded Knee occupation. He considered it violent, although many Indians viewed it as a heroic stand.
Eventually, Giago became friends with Bellecourt's late brother, Vernon, another AIM leader.
"We found we had a lot in common," Giago said. "If Clyde called, I'd be glad to sit down with him. … They have toned it down a lot."
He 'cleared a path'
About 20 elected officials were among attendees at a recent dinner in St. Paul for 14 Indian nonprofits sponsored by the American Indian Opportunities Industrialization Center.
Bellecourt offered a prayer for Indian children who have been separated from their families and for the homeless. Peggy Flanagan, Minnesota's newly elected lieutenant governor and the highest-ranking Indian woman elected to statewide executive office, closed out the ceremony.
"I know that I am in the role of lieutenant governor because Clyde Bellecourt cleared a path for so many folks in the American Indian community," she said in an interview.
Supporters of the Bellecourts have established a GoFundMe account to assist with medical bills.