Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Vernon Bellecourt died the other day. I met him a couple of times back in the 70s. Interesting fellow and a true man of his people. He was often controversial amongst friends as well as enemies. Burial services were this morning on the White Earth Indian Reservation northern Minnesota.

The following is from Indian Country Today

Harjo: Vernon Bellecourt (1931-2007)
© Indian Country Today October 15, 2007. All Rights Reserved
by: Suzan Shown Harjo / Indian Country Today

American Indian Movement leader Vernon Bellecourt would have celebrated his 76th birthday on Oct. 17, but now it is also the date of his burial.

Bellecourt died Oct. 13 in a Minneapolis hospital from complications of diabetes and an E. coli infection in his lungs. He was surrounded by family and friends, who said that he passed peacefully within three minutes after being removed from a respirator.

''Of all 12 of us siblings, only me and my sister are left,'' said Bellecourt's brother, Clyde Bellecourt, also a longtime activist in Minneapolis. ''It's hard to think about what we'll do without him.'' Bellecourt will be laid to rest on family land on the White Earth Chippewa Reservation in northwestern Minnesota.

Bellecourt's Anishinaabe name was WaBun-Inini, which means Man of Dawn. A White Earth Band of Chippewa Indians tribal member, he once served on the tribal council and was Minneapolis-area vice president of the National Congress of American Indians.

''Vernon was a great representative of the Ojibwe Nation and one of the great communicators of our generation,'' said William A. Means, Oglala Lakota, Bellecourt's friend, fellow activist and community organizer. ''He was the best at getting across the message of treaty rights, human rights, mascots and racism to people from the grass-roots all the way to national officials.''

Means lauded Bellecourt's work as president of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media, his support of our lawsuit against the disparaging name of the Washington football team and his efforts on behalf of the International Indian Treaty Council, which Means served as president for two decades. He commended what turned out to be the final work of Bellecourt's life: ''Getting another year's heating oil for 27 tribes from the people of Venezuela and CITGO.'' Bellecourt returned from Venezuela shortly before being hospitalized.

Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota, praised Bellecourt's leadership of the AIM Grand Governing Council in Minneapolis. Westerman recalled a 1968 meeting in Denver ''where Vernon, Clyde, DJ [Dennis J. Banks, Leech Lake Chippewa] and I started the American Indian Movement; then they went to Minneapolis and made it official.''

Westerman's spoke to me from a hospital bed in Los Angeles, where he was recovering from a myelodysplasia syndrome incident. ''Now, all of us guys are getting up there. All that traveling - the life's been hard on us.'' Westerman, 71, is a singer/songwriter and actor who first rose to prominence in 1969, when his collaboration with Vine Deloria Jr. resulted in Westerman's first album, named after Deloria's bestselling book, ''Custer Died For Your Sins.''

I last saw Bellecourt in November 2005, at the public service following Deloria's private inurnment in Golden, Colo. Westerman was closing the service and invited all the AIM people to join him and sing the AIM song in Deloria's honor. Ward Churchill - who arrived late and loudly derided the family's projected images of Deloria on a back wall - started making his way to the front of the room.

Westerman cleverly called out the name of the man who had helped expose Churchill as a pseudo-Indian more than 15 years before he was fired for plagiarism by the University of Colorado: ''Vernon Bellecourt, come on up here.'' Upon hearing the name of his nemesis, Churchill threw his hands in the air and left in a huff, taking with him the gathering's only discordant note.

Seeing Westerman, Bellecourt and others together that day reminded me that these were brave men and women who had put themselves in danger for the rights of all Native peoples, so I joined them in a show of solidarity. Afterward, a friend said, ''I didn't know you were AIM.'' I wasn't, but that wasn't the point. It was a respect thing. I remember marveling at Bellecourt's verbal skills. He was like an old jazz musician who never had a lesson or needed a rehearsal - he could just play.

(In the interest of full disclosure, my late husband, Frank Ray Harjo, Wotko Muscogee - together with an Iroquois ironworker and a Nicaraguan Indian musician - were asked in 1973 by Banks to wrest a New York AIM office from a con artist who started it, and they ran it for six months. Aside from that, Harjo was a radio producer, community organizer and carver of Muscogee stickball sticks and Onondaga lacrosse sticks, whose activism pre-dated AIM).

Bellecourt was a stand-up guy, even when he was in a wheelchair, as he often was over the last five years. Never a quisling or fair-weather friend, he had a quick wit and a keen sense of what was important at any given moment. One day at a lunch meeting, I ordered a low-cal/no-carb dish and something in diet brown; he ordered a cheeseburger, fries and a sugary drink. ''Is that all you're going to eat,'' he asked. ''Yes, I'm diabetic, you know.'' ''Well, who isn't, but no-taste food? What's the point of even eating?''

As his diabetes progressed, he called periodically to ask about my health and to say that we ought to make some public service announcements for Indian young people about what happens if you smoke and don't eat right. He was the first to congratulate me for writing a column saying that frybread wasn't healthy or traditional.

''Vernon Bellecourt was serious about services to Natives, and he reached out to be a leader in the community,'' said Gerald Vizenor, White Earth Chippewa, a writer and professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico. ''He took part in many activities, including an interest in contemporary Native arts. I was impressed that he attended shows and exhibitions of Native American art. Vernon studied each contemporary painting, and would ask the artist to talk about his work. I once encouraged him at an art show to consider contemporary Native literature, but he seemed to be more interested in painting and sculpture.''

''I crossed many paths and traveled many roads with Vernon,'' said Phyllis Young, Hunkpapa Lakota/Yanktonai Dakota, a community activist and a founder of Women of All Red Nations. ''Vernon spent his life in pursuit of a better life for all Indian people. He did it very aggressively and never stopped, in spite of age and ailments and opposition.''

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.

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