Clyde Bellecourt, one of the most influential leaders in the history of the American Indian struggle for civil rights, died of cancer Tuesday at his home in Minneapolis. He was 85.

For more than five decades, Bellecourt was both an advocate and organizer, playing a role in some of the most memorable protests of the past 50 years as well as helping to initiate several organizations that became transformative for Native Americans in Minnesota.

"He loved the Native people," said his wife, Peggy Bellecourt. "He loved being out there, trying to help improve conditions."

With Dennis Banks and others, Bellecourt in 1968 co-founded the American Indian Movement (AIM), a grassroots group of Indians in Minneapolis that inspired a generation of Native activists on reservations and inner cities across the country.

"Indian people had no legal rights centers, job training centers, community clinics, Native American studies programs or Indian child welfare statutes," Bellecourt wrote in his memoir "The Thunder Before the Storm," published in 2016. "There were no Indian casinos or Indian schools, no Indian preference housing. We were prohibited from practicing our spirituality. It was illegal to be in our country. The Movement changed all that."

Bellecourt had a flair for the dramatic, crafting demonstrations that drew thousands to protest the nickname of the NFL's Washington Redskins, widely seen as a racist moniker. He organized a series of widely reported protests in 1993 after two intoxicated American Indians were shoved into the trunk of a Minneapolis police squad car and driven to HCMC.

"He had a very strong voice and presence," said Kate Beane, a local Dakota educator and director of the Minnesota Museum of American Art. "He fought so hard for Native American education, and his legacy is that young Native Americans can feel prideful for who they are as indigenous students."

"What a courageous man," said Winona LaDuke, a prominent Native activist and distant cousin of Bellecourt, who met him at a conference on treaties in 1977 when she was 17. "A lot of people don't realize the depth and length of Clyde's commitment to civil rights, human rights, environmental justice."

Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan issued statements praising Bellecourt. "His fight for justice and fairness leaves behind a powerful legacy that will continue to inspire people across our state and nation for generations to come," Walz said.

Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, hailed Bellecourt's role in co-founding AIM. "He fought for the visibility and fair treatment of Native people," she said. "Minneapolis has one of the most robust and vibrant networks of organizations serving the urban Indian community in the country, and that is because of Clyde and his work."

'An icon in the community'

Bellecourt had a tempestuous life as a youth, doing time in the Red Wing Correctional Facility for juveniles and later at the St. Cloud and Stillwater state prisons for robbery. It was at Stillwater that he met Eddie Benton-Banai, who helped him appreciate Native American history, culture and spirituality.

"Eddie and I started planning for our release," Bellecourt wrote in his memoir. "We would transpose our Native American studies program to the streets of Minneapolis, catch young people before they got into trouble, and keep them from going to prison." That idea evolved into AIM, which began with street patrols to prevent police brutality.

As AIM's national director, Bellecourt became a forceful spokesman for the movement. Vernon Bellecourt, Clyde's older brother who died in 2007, joined AIM and became one of its central leaders. The group staged a takeover of an abandoned Naval Air Station in Minneapolis in 1971 and engineered a march to Washington, D.C., in 1972 called the Trail of Broken Treaties.

In 1973, AIM organized a 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee, S.D., to highlight corruption on the reservation and charge the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) with injustices against Indians. The protest drew worldwide attention but the occupation had periods of violence, and two people died in a shootout.

Clyde Bellecourt joined with Black activists in Minneapolis to launch the Legal Rights Center, a community-owned law firm. Senior U.S. District Judge Michael Davis worked for the Legal Rights Center before joining the state and federal benches.

"Clyde served on the [center's] board for many years and was an icon in our community," Davis said Tuesday. "Loved by many, he will truly be missed."

Bellecourt also played an important role in the founding of Heart of the Earth Survival School, an Indian-focused school that later folded, and the American Indian Opportunities Industrial Center (OIC), which addresses education and employment disparities of Indians. He was honored in 2019 for his role in its creation.

At periods in his life, Bellecourt struggled with addiction. He was convicted of drug dealing in 1986 and served two years in federal prison. He wrote about the experience with remorse: "I should never have gotten involved in drug dealing, but I did. I've made mistakes in my life, and this one was one of the worst; I have had to make peace with it."

Once out of prison he resumed his activism with a growing sense of urgency to rid sports teams of Indian mascot names. He helped organize marches in Minneapolis during the 1991 World Series, when the Minnesota Twins faced the Atlanta Braves, and the 1992 Super Bowl when the Redskins played the Buffalo Bills.

"Black lives matter and Indian lives matter," said Bellecourt at a news conference in 2020, celebrating a decision by the Washington team's owner, Dan Snyder, to drop the nickname.

In addition to his wife, Bellecourt is survived by daughters Susan of Redwood Falls, Minn., and Tanya of Minneapolis; sons Little Crow and Wolf, both of Minneapolis; nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Funeral arrangements have not been finalized.

Staff librarian John Wareham did research for this article.