The Age of AIM:The American Indian Movement turns 46
Thursday, August 07 2014
Written by Jon Lurie,
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the age of aim the circle.jpgClyde Bellecourt was naked, locked in a dark, solitary cell in the bowels of Stillwater State Prison. Almost two weeks had passed since the 32 year-old Anishinaabe inmate had been forced into that cold concrete dungeon; he awoke contemplating suicide.

Bellecourt's path to Stillwater had begun long before, while still in the fifth grade. He ran away from school on the White Earth Reservation, where he was often beaten for acting out. Even as a child, Bellecourt rebelled against a system that denied the history and culture of his people. He was judged incorrigible by local authorities and sent to the Red Wing State Training School, a juvenile correctional facility.

Years later, lying raw against his stone bunk at Stillwater, Bellecourt remembered the cries of boys pleading for help as they were sexually molested by the Red Wing reformatory's priest.

As he considered taking his own life, Bellecourt heard someone whistling “You Are My Sunshine” outside the cell door.

He wondered: Who the hell whistles a song like that inside a prison?

He heard someone call out, "Is there a Clyde Bellecourt here?"

It was the voice of Eddie Benton-Banai, an Anishinaabe prisoner from Round Lake, Wisconsin. Benton-Benai asked Bellecourt for help organizing Native prisoners for an Indian folklore group.

Their eyes met through the peephole of the cell door seeding a partnership that would eventually blossom into the American Indian Movement, perhaps the most influential indigenous organization of the 20th century. Bellecourt and Benton-Banai succeeded in convincing a majority of the prison's nearly 200 Native prisoners to join their group.

Speaking at the celebration of the 46th anniversary of the American Indian Movement on July 28, Bellecourt said those prisoners coming together to learn about their traditions constituted “the first Native American Studies course in America.”

Upon release later that year, Bellecourt continued to organize Native people on the streets of Minneapolis, where police brutality, the education system, health disparities, alcoholism and unemployment were destroying lives.

AIM attracted a strong grassroots following, particularly among displaced urban Indians and by 1972 had drawn worldwide attention to the abysmal condition of Native America. AIM supported the occupation of Alcatraz island in 1969; led the takeover of the BIA building in Washington D.C. in 1973 and battled the federal government at Wounded Knee for 71 days later that year. These actions led to the development of social justice services for Native people, Indian Gaming, the enforcement of treaty rights, and the revitalization of language and spirituality. the age of aim the circle 2.jpg

Those honored at Black Bear Crossings in St. Paul were Bellecourt and three other pillars of the American Indian Movement: attorney Larry Leventhal, photographer Dick Bancroft and AIM Grand Governing Council board member/activist Pat Bellanger. Some 300 community members attended the event.

The four honorees took turns at the podium, reflecting on AIM's record of achievement, spanning six decades. They were joined by, among others, singer Larry Long, Bellanger's daughter Lisa Bellanger and Black Bear Crossings owner David Glass.

“It's important that we recognize the work these four people have done for the American Indian community,” Glass said. “Clyde Bellecourt and his cohorts have been able to impact their community more than any elected leaders I've known.”

AIM was instrumental in the creation of many local and national non-profit organizations, including the Legal Rights Center, Indian Health Board of Minneapolis, Heart of the Earth Survival School, Red School House, International Indian Treaty Council, MIGIZI Communications, American Indian Opportunity Industrialization Center (AIOIC) and the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media.

“They were a small group of people who stood up to the federal government and changed the course of history. AIM made an invisible population visible,” Alan Yelsey said, a member of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media. The organization recently scored a major victory when Washington's NFL team lost their patent rights to the Redskins nickname. Yelsey attended the anniversary celebration to toast the past, but said AIM must continue to look forward. “I'm here to help AIM finish the job of insuring equality for all Native people.”

Lisa Bellanger, whose mother earned the name 'Grandma AIM' after years of dedicated service, recalled the price her family paid for their association with the Movement, which the Nixon administration labeled a terrorist organization. “Police cars drove by with huge spotlights shining into our house. Our phones were constantly tapped. Our house was ransacked every once in a while.”

Bellanger shared a childhood memory of watching her mother leave home for Wounded Knee. “She went all over Minneapolis accumulating medical supplies. When she left I wanted to go with her, but my grandma said I was too little. My mom crawled through the back country with those supplies to get into Wounded Knee. Once inside she fixed and cleaned a lot of weapons. She had spent time in the woods with her uncles and brothers and knew all about caring for firearms. She was the little Indian chick from the city who showed the warriors how to do it.”

the age of aim the circle 3.jpgPat Bellanger explained her passion for the AIM struggle. “Before AIM,” she said, “there was no news coming out of Indian Country. The government felt they could do whatever they wanted to Native people. The feds announced they were going to terminate the tribes, and all of us Indians were supposed to accept it and live like happy Americans. I didn't like that idea.”

AIM Grand Governing Council Chairman Keith Lussier encouraged the many young people in attendance to seek out the history of the American Indian Movement and keep it alive. "Listen closely to the stories of the people being honored here tonight. Learn what they've done for us. They've led us into battle, brought us home and written our history. We are who we are because of them.”

Now 78 years old, Bellecourt maintains a commanding presence at the microphone and in the boardroom – a member, or so it seems, of every Native nonprofit board in town. In his remarks to the gathering, he addressed the suggestion that he might be slowing down. “They said I was incorrigible then. Well, I'm incorrigible now. And I'm going to continue to be incorrigible.”

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