Clyde Bellecourt, leader of Native American civil rights struggle, dies at 85

Clyde Bellecourt, a longtime leader in the Native American civil rights struggle, died Tuesday of cancer, his wife told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He was 85 years old.

In 1968 Bellecourt helped found the American Indian Movement, which began as a local group in Minneapolis fighting against police brutality and discrimination against Native Americans. AIM did not immediately respond to BuzzFeed News, but confirmed his death to The Associated Press.

“He loved Native Americans,” his wife Peggy Bellecourt told the Star Tribune. “He loved being there, trying to help improve conditions.”

The organization expanded its reach to tackle national issues and later led major nationwide protests in the 1970s, including a march to Washington, D.C. known as the Trail of Broken Treaties. The protest was intended to highlight the federal government’s failure to fulfill treaty obligations.

In 1973, AIM led a 71-day occupation of the town of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to protest the American and tribal governments. The occupation turned violent and two people were killed.

Bellecourt was also known for protesting major professional sports teams for using Native Americans as mascots and in their names.

“America is academically retarded on Indian culture and history and how the West was really conquered,” Bellecourt said in 1991 during a protest at an Atlanta Braves game. “It’s sheer ignorance.”

He continued to lead AIM until 2020 when he stepped down due to health issues, according to Indian Country Today.

Born on the White Earth Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota, Bellecourt’s Ojibway name was Nee-gon-we-way-we-dun, meaning “thunder before the storm.” He was AIM’s only living founder, the organization’s current co-director, Lisa Bellanger, told The Associated Press.

“Clyde Bellecourt started a movement in Minneapolis that has spread around the world,” Minnesota Governor Tim Walz said. noted on Twitter. “His fight for justice and fairness leaves behind a powerful legacy that will continue to inspire the people of our state and our nation for generations to come.”

Nohemi M. Moore