Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Vernon Bellecourt

[4 items]

Vernon Bellecourt: a visionary of the Native movement


Friday, October 19, 2007
By: Gloria La Riva

In memory

Vernon Bellecourt, WaBun-Inini, a member of the Anishinabe/Ojibwe
Nation and longtime leader in the American Indian Movement, died on
Oct. 13 of pneumonia at the age of 75.

Bellecourt, one of 12 children and older brother of AIM co-founder
Clyde Bellecourt, was born on the White Earth Chippewa Reservation in
Minnesota in 1931. It is estimated that unemployment on the
reservation was 95 percent when the Bellecourt children were growing up.

Dennis Banks and Clyde Bellecourt co-founded the American Indian
Movement in 1968 in Minneapolis, an organization of and for Native
people that was inspired by the Black Panther Party. AIM sought to
defend the community against police brutality, racism, poverty and oppression.

Vernon soon joined and was a lifelong activist in the organization.
By its militant example and defense of Native peoples trying to stop
the theft of their land and resources, AIM helped instill a renewed
pride across the Native nations of the United States.

AIM led a 71-day takeover of the town of Wounded Knee on the Pine
Ridge reservation beginning Feb. 27, 1973, after U.S. marshals laid
siege to a community meeting that sought AIM's assistance against the
repressive and corrupt tribal government. More than 300 federal
agents surrounded the camp with armored personnel carriers, over
130,000 rounds of ammunition, and constant gunfire. Two AIM activists
were murdered by government agents.

For this, the American Indian Movement leaders, including the
Bellecourts and Banks, were severely repressed. Over 60 people on the
reservation were murdered by police and vigilantes in the next two
years, culminating in the June 26, 1975, shoot-out at Pine Ridge,
where two FBI agents were killed after raiding the reservation.

The most egregious injustice against AIM activists was the frame-up
and persecution of Leonard Peltier. Because two AIM members, Dino
Butler and Bob Robideau, were acquitted of the FBI deaths by a
federal jury in Iowa by reason of self-defense, the FBI decided the
only remaining defendant charged but not yet tried had to pay.
Leonard Peltier had sought refuge in Canada and was therefore not
tried along with Butler and Robideau, or he also would have been acquitted.

The FBI falsified evidence to get Peltier extradited. Despite a lack
of evidence, witness coercion by the FBI, and numerous
irregularities, Peltier was convicted and sentenced to two
consecutive life terms. To this day, he remains in a U.S. federal
prison at Lewisburg, Penn., despite international and national
demands for his freedom.

It is in this context of extreme U.S. government repression of the
American Indian Movement that the continued resistance of leaders
like the Bellecourts, Banks, Bill Means and many other Indigenous
leaders is best appreciated.

An internationalist

Bellecourt was an internationalist, supporting the Palestinian,
Irish, Venezuelan, Cuban, Libyan, Nicaraguan and many other causes.

When the CIA intensified its counterrevolutionary war in Nicaragua in
the mid-1980s by recruiting Indigenous Miskito leaders who had joined
the Contra forces, Bellecourt traveled to the country to defend the
Nicaraguan revolution.

He prided himself on his uncompromising anti-imperialist stance, and
recently returned from Venezuela where he traveled to express
appreciation to Hugo Chávez for the Bolivarian revolution's
heating-fuel deliveries to Native communities in Minnesota.

In recent years, Bellecourt was nationally known as a spokesperson in
the campaign against racist anti-Indian symbols of sports teams
through the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media.

In 1997, he drew national attention to this anti-racist fight when
he, Juan Reyna and Juanita Helphrey and other coalition members set
fire to an effigy of the extremely offensive Cleveland baseball
team's Chief Wahoo, during the baseball World Series at Cleveland's
Jacobs Field. He was arrested but charges were later dropped.

In a 1995 interview with Sinn Fein, Bellecourt stated, "AIM sees the
Washington Redskins, the Atlanta Braves basketball team, Kansas City
Chiefs and Cleveland Indians baseball teams with their grinning
buck-toothed mascot Chief Wahoo as demeaning the beautiful culture of
the Indigenous nations of the Americas. We are a living people with a
vibrant culture and we refuse to have our identity trivialized and
degraded. Indians are people, not mascots for America's fun and games."

Bellecourt was a strong opponent of the U.S. genocide and occupation
in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he spoke at several ANSWER Coalition
(Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) anti-war rallies since 2003 in
Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.

The Party for Socialism and Liberation extends its deepest
condolences to his family, comrades and friends. We pledge our
continued solidarity with the Native struggle for self-determination
and justice.

Vernon Bellecourt, presente!

The Bellecourt family is collecting donations to help pay for medical
and burial costs. Donations and cards can be sent to:

Clyde Bellecourt
3953 14th Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55407


Sharing a Cuban Cigar with Vernon Bellecourt


Posted October 21, 2007

My receptionist, Christy Tibbitts, stuck her head in the door of my
office at the Lakota Times weekly newspaper several years ago and
said, "There's a Vernon Bellecourt on the line."

Whoa! Vernon Bellecourt? Bellecourt was one of the spokesmen and
founders of the American Indian Movement, and as the editor and
publisher of the Lakota Times; I had my share of confrontations with
AIM. I had accused them of shooting out the windows of my newspaper
building and of attacking it with firebombs just before Christmas in 1981.

With just a little bit of trepidation I answered the phone. "Hey Tim,
this is Vernon Bellecourt. I know you're probably surprised, but I
just read one of your articles in the St. Paul Pioneer Press about
your anger at using Indians as mascots. I just wanted to tell you
that you are right on and I would like to meet with you about this," he said.

In 1992, the week the Washington professional football team met the
Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl in Minneapolis, an article by me
about the use of Indians as mascots appeared in Newsweek Magazine.
Some enterprising editor put the headline on it that read, "I hope
the Redskins lose." Nowhere in the article did I say, "I hope the
Redskins lose," and that brought the wrath of every Redskin fan in
the country down on my head. I traveled to Minneapolis that week to
cover the protest and had my first meeting with Vernon Bellecourt.

We had a cup of coffee a day or two before the Super Bowl and he told
me that there would be a protest by several hundred Indians at the
stadium. We kicked around ideas for future articles and then I had to
fly back to South Dakota because I was on a deadline.

Bellecourt impressed me in that he was willing to reach across the
table and shake hands with me even though many of his cohorts looked
at me as a political enemy. I had no qualms about shaking his hand
because I was there as a newspaperman and not as a politician.

The last time I saw Vernon was at a restaurant in New York City. I
had dinner with him and another well-known mascot protestor, Charlene
Teters. The restaurant was on the top floor of a building that
rotated so that we could see different parts of the New York skyline.
After dinner Bellecourt reached into his pocket and pulled out two
cigars. He said, "I got these directly from Fidel Castro when I was
visiting Cuba last month." I must admit that it was one of the best
cigars I had ever smoked.

From the day of our first phone visit Bellecourt kept me abreast of
the different protests around the country that his organization, The
National Coalition on Racism in Sports & Media, would be conducting.
The previous year I had covered the protest at the University of
Illinois and Michael Haney, Charlene Teters, and Vernon were there.
Haney, an Oklahoma Seminole Indian, passed away a few years ago.

I was on my way from Albuquerque to Rapid City, SD last week when
Teters called me on my cell phone to inform me that Vernon was
critically ill. By the time I got to Rapid City he had died. His
funeral was held on his home reservation of White Earth in Minnesota last week.

Bellecourt's death brought up a lot of the things that had been a
part of the history of the American Indian Movement. There was talk
of his involvement in the death of Anna Mae Pictou Aquash in the
1970s and of other things that happened in the heydays of AIM. There
is no proof of this allegation.

When told about the death of Bellecourt, former AIM leader Russell
Means said he was sad to hear about his death because, "I wanted him
to live long enough to go to jail for Anna Mae's death." Well, all of
this should come out at the trial of John "Boy" Graham that should
take place in Rapid City in 2008. Arvol Looking Cloud who was
convicted in her death and is now serving a life sentence accused
Graham of being the triggerman. Perhaps the truth will finally be known.

There were a lot of bad things that happened in the 1970s in the
angry early days of AIM. I am sure that many of AIM's leaders wish
that they had done some things differently, but in the long run, they
were fighting for the trampled rights of the Indian people and the
route they chose was confrontational and often ended up violently.

Before asking me to work with him on the mascot issue Bellecourt
shook my hand again and said, "Tim, I know that you and me didn't
always see eye-to-eye, but if you really look at it, we were fighting
for the same things, but we were probably coming at it from different

There is a Lakota tradition that says one should never speak ill of
the dead. And I know there will be accusatory words flying around
that would disparage Vernon Bellecourt, but I only knew him as a
friend and in my prayers I hope that his travels to the Spirit World
be filled with wonders.

(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the
Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at
Harvard in the Class of 1991 and founder of The Lakota Times and
Indian Country Today newspapers. He founded and was the first
president of the Native American Journalists Association. He can be
reached at najournalist@msn.com)


Burial service for Vernon Bellecourt today at White Earth


October 17, 2007

Burial services are set for this morning on the White Earth Indian
Reservation in northern Minnesota for American Indian activist Vernon

The services at the Snyder Lake Traditional Burial Site include
memorials, traditional Indian rites and culminate with a feast.

Bellecourt, who died Saturday in Minneapolis at age 75 of
complications from pneumonia, traveled the world in defense of
American Indian people and disadvantaged children of all nations,
sometimes creating controversy.

Today would have been Bellecourt's 76 birthday. He was born on the
White Earth reservation on Oct. 17, 1931.

The self-proclaimed "freedom fighter" was the longtime leader of the
American Indian Movement (AIM).

Bellecourt over the years met with controversial leaders such as
Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, Libya's Moammar Gadhafi and Palestinian
leader Yasser Arafat. Last month, he was in Venezuela to talk with
President Hugo Chavez about his program for providing heating
assistance to American Indian tribes.

In 1973, he served as spokesman and fundraiser during AIM's
occupation of the town of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian
Reservation in South Dakota.

Most pressing in recent years was his fight against the use of Indian
mascots and symbols for sports teams, such as the Washington Redskins
and Cleveland Indians. He was arrested before Game 5 of the 1997
World Series for burning Cleveland's red-faced logo outside Jacobs Field.


Vernon Bellecourt: A lifetime of protest


The activist, who died Saturday, was a major player in a tense,
pivotal time in American Indian history.

By Gail Rosenblum and Paul Levy, Star Tribune staff writers
Last update: October 14, 2007

As a youngster, Vernon Bellecourt heard stories of how the people of
his northern Minnesota White Earth reservation lost their land to
unscrupulous whites at the turn of the 20th century and suffered
profound poverty as a result. His life would be different, he decided.

And it was for a while. He opened a chain of successful hair salons
in St. Paul, then moved to Denver to sell real estate. "I was going
to become a millionaire," he told the Star Tribune in 1999.

But his younger brother, Clyde, who stayed in Minnesota and became an
activist, changed that. "I'm trying to win back the land," Clyde told
Vernon, "and you're selling it."

Vernon Bellecourt soon came home for good.

The self-proclaimed "freedom fighter" and longtime leader of the
American Indian Movement (AIM) died Saturday at Abbott Northwestern
Hospital in Minneapolis of complications from pneumonia, said Clyde
Bellecourt. He was 75.

Vernon Bellecourt once said that the American Indian Movement, an
often controversial group that led a series of high-profile,
sometimes violent protests in the 1970s, was "respected by many,
hated by some, but ... never ignored." The same might have been said
for him. He spent most of his life protesting, often drawing
criticism for the form it took, sometimes from within the Indian
protest movement itself.

"He was very articulate in expressing the view that American Indians
have not been adequately recognized and remembered in history, or
adequately dealt with as political entities in these United States,"
said Laura Waterman Wittstock, who met Bellecourt in 1970 when she
was a reporter with the American Indian Press Association and he was
representing AIM.

Takes cause abroad

While Clyde focused on the home front, Vernon became a leader of
AIM's work abroad, meeting with controversial leaders such as
Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, Libya's Moammar Gadhafi and Palestinian
leader Yasser Arafat. As recently as four weeks ago, he was in
Venezuela to talk with President Hugo Chavez about his program for
providing heating assistance to American Indian tribes.

Most pressing in recent years was his fight against the use of Indian
mascots and symbols for sports teams, such as the Washington Redskins
and Cleveland Indians. He was arrested before Game 5 of the 1997
World Series for burning Cleveland's red-faced logo outside Jacobs
Field, and he protested in Atlanta at Braves playoff games throughout
the 1990s.

"Because of Vernon and other activists, fewer students in this
country will have to tolerate this problem when they go to school,"
said Brenda Child, associate professor of American Indian studies at
the University of Minnesota.

"I don't think a lot of people in the Indian community thought there
would be this kind of success in the mascot campaign," said Robert
Warrior, author of "Like a Hurricane: American Indian Activism From
Alcatraz to Wounded Knee" and an English professor at the University
of Oklahoma in Norman.

While AIM succeeded in raising Americans' consciousness of Indian
issues, it also participated in a number of events that featured
violence and internal dissension.

"When you look at AIM actions ... mistakes were made and there are
numerous criticisms [of their actions] and many of them are fair,"
Warrior said. "But what you see Vernon and the other AIM leaders
doing was work that other native organizations were not doing. ...
They were reaching out and trying to respond to the needs of people
whose needs were not being met."

Bellecourt grew up on the White Earth reservation. "Although we all
lived in poverty, we lived a better life than most people," he told
the Star Tribune in 1999.

He was a disciplined student who learned his prayers from the
Catholic nuns of St. Benedict's parochial school in White Earth. But
the lessons in life he learned were not always pleasant.

"To this day, I can't stand the smell of Lifebuoy soap, because a
racist teacher shoved a whole bar of it in my mouth," he recalled.

In Minneapolis, where the family moved when he was 16, Bellecourt
quit school. After a series of odd jobs, he was convicted of robbing
a bar in St. Paul and sentenced to St. Cloud prison when he was 19.



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