Clyde Bellecourt had a fierce heart and a tender soul.
Like many Native families, he and his wife, Peggy, came to Minneapolis in search of jobs and housing. In 1968, when a meeting was held to discuss what the community could do to stop the police brutality focused on Indigenous people in the streets of Minneapolis, Clyde and Peggy were there. The 200 men and women at that meeting decided it was time for action.
Bellecourt spoke eloquently and volunteered their car to drive Franklin Avenue and patrol police activity. Four other cars were volunteered, painted red and deployed as the first AIM Patrol.
A movement that would become national, then international, was born. A woman elder suggested the name American Indian Movement.
Clyde Bellecourt's Anishinaabe Ojibwe name is Nee-gon-we-way-we-dun, which means Thunder Before the Storm. That's exactly who he was. When Bellecourt spoke the heavens shook, people gathered and the battle for treaty rights and the sovereignty of First Nation people was on.
Like the AIM Patrol created at that first small meeting, many programs of AIM sprung from the basic needs of the people. The greatness of its leaders has been their ability to think outside the box; to believe that they could create anything that their people needed.
When a Minneapolis native family felt they could no longer send their children to public school where they were ridiculed for their long hair and race, Bellecourt said: "We need to create a school for these children." The family was saved from action by county child protection services when a Heart of the Earth Survival School was started.
At first it was a few teachers and students in a basement. When funding was found, it was a beautiful schoolhouse where native pride and culture were taught and celebrated.
When people of color needed their own law office to provide defense in the courts, Bellecourt and other leaders of AIM partnered with the Black community to form the Legal Rights Center. Some of the best lawyers in the area were hired and they were given cases to defend chosen by native and Black community organizers. The center continues its work to this day.
By 1982, the American Indian Movement had started health clinics, treatment centers, two schools, a local job training center, a program to retrieve native children from foster care and it had been granted control of the Little Earth Housing Project.
Bellecourt was not alone. The movement had many leaders, both men and women. Eddie Benton. Dennis Banks. Pat Bellanger. Bill Means. Laura Waterman Wittstock. So many. But Bellecourt's home was a 24/7 communication center. When a crisis arose, he would get the call.
When a nurse at the Hennepin County Medical Center saw a police squad car pull up to the Emergency entrance and unload two Native men from the trunk of the vehicle, she was shocked and knew who to call. Bellecourt was meeting with the mayor and county attorney within hours, calling for the end of this type of treatment. AIM lawyer Larry Leventhal had a lawsuit started within days.
Bellecourt wanted the youth of his community to experience the wild and take part in traditional Ojibwe practices. From the Peacemaker Center in south Minneapolis that he started to serve local children, he organized annual maple syrup gatherings and wild rice gatherings. Children from nearby Little Earth Housing Project were taken out of the city to take part and learn traditional food gathering. A sundance for youth was organized in western Minnesota for native youth to leave the city for a week and experience cultural ceremonies.
When the Mississippi River Revival was organized to clean up and celebrate the Mississippi River, Bellecourt was always a supporter. He and Peggy sent their son Crow, at 13 years of age, to paddle in our canoe flotilla traveling down the entire upper Mississippi. When our flotilla paddled into Minneapolis, it was joined by the American Indian Movement with Clyde Bellecourt, Bill Means and children from Heart of the Earth Survival School in the lead.
We will miss this man greatly. The vision that he carried is now passed to each one of us as a sacred bundle to fight for and to protect.
Larry and Jacqueline Long live in Minneapolis. He is a singer-songwriter, and she is a retired attorney. They both worked with the American Indian Movement.