Political Matters – February 2022

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By Mordecai Specktor

Remembering Thunder Before the Storm
Clyde Bellecourt, a co-founder of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and a committed defender of Native communities and treaty rights, has walked on.

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

More than 50 years before Minneapolis became the epicenter of the global movement for racial justice, after the police murder of George Floyd, May 25, 2020, Clyde Bellecourt was a key figure in organizing the first AIM Patrol to monitor police behavior on Franklin Avenue. Vulnerable Indians were being arrested and brutalized by the cops, and AIM’s first project was to intervene to stop such behavior.

Bellecourt – his Ojibwe name was Neegon-we-wandon-iban (Thunder Before the Storm) – died of cancer Jan. 11, at his home in Minneapolis. He was 85.

I remember Clyde as a loyal, open-hearted friend over the more than 40 years that I knew him. Behind his gruff, bellicose public persona, he was a kind, loyal and gracious man. And he was an inspiring leader to a couple generations of Native activists that followed in his footsteps.

“What a courageous man,” Winona LaDuke, one of my colleagues at The Circle, commented to the Star Tribune’s Randy Furst. “A lot of people don’t realize the depth and length of Clyde’s commitment to civil rights, human rights, environmental justice.”

I knew that my February column would be a remembrance of Clyde, which posed a problem in that most of his associates from the early days of AIM are also now gone. However, I remembered meeting Clyde one afternoon in a café on East Franklin and talking for a couple hours for a story on AIM’s 20th anniversary, in 1988. I also talked with several of Clyde’s associates from back in the day.

AIM really was born in Minnesota’s Stillwater Prison, when Bellecourt arrived as an inmate in 1962. Eddie Benton-Banai, an Anishinaabe inmate working as a tinsmith in the prison, started stopping by Clyde’s cell and engaging him in talks about their shared culture and the evolving struggle for Indian treaty rights.

“I sensed and saw something there that needed nurturing,” Benton-Banai told me. “I saw something there that could become really valuable, first unto himself, but then onto the Indian community.”

“It was a turning point in my life, I started learning more about my culture,” Clyde said, about meeting his mentor inside the walls. Bellecourt and Benton-Banai organized a pathbreaking Indian studies program at Stillwater, the Indian American Folklore Group.
“An idea was born there,” Benton-Banai commented during a 1988 telephone interview. “An idea that, instead of railing against our situation, our conditions, we could actually do something about it.” Benton-Banai died in 2020.

After getting out of Stillwater, Clyde, who came from the White Earth Nation, got a job as an operating engineer for Northern States Power Co. (now Xcel Energy). In October 1968, he was elected as AIM’s first director.

Women have always been the backbone of AIM and Pat Bellanger, a co-founder of the group, told me back in 1988: “The media did paint a really terrible picture [of AIM].” She mentioned that some of the early funders of the movement were afraid to sit in the same room as the Indians. A man from the United Way “got two other people [to meet with the AIM leaders] because he was deathly afraid of us.” Bellanger died in 2015.

Bellecourt and the AIMsters were gaining a name on the streets of Minneapolis. Clyde was continually harassed by the cops, arrested “25 to 30 times” on traffic offenses according to Doug Hall. “I think he was found guilty on one or two.” Hall was the founding executive director of the Legal Rights Center, an initiative of AIM, The Way community center in North Minneapolis, and Peter Dorsey of the Dorsey & Whitney law firm. Hall died in 2004.

“Clyde became a focal point for the police,” recalled Dennis Banks, another AIM co-founder. “It was Clyde who was speaking about police brutality all along, up and down the avenue. Clyde became the most vocal against police brutality; as a result he became subject to arrest more times than the rest of us.” Banks died in 2017.

In addition to the Legal Rights Center, Bellecourt was involved in the creation of numerous agencies to serve the Indian community, including Heart of the Earth Survival School, MIGIZI Communications and the Native American Community Clinic.

Bellecourt and his AIM comrades brought Native issues to global attention through confrontational tactics like the 1972 takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C., and the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation, which resulted in a 71-day siege of the tiny hamlet on the Pine Ridge reservation (So. Dakota) by U.S. government forces.

In addition to his wife, Peggy, Clyde is survived by his children, Susie, Tanya, Crow and Wolf; sister, Judy; nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren; and many nieces and nephews.

Clyde Bellecourt was a great warrior for Native people. May his memory always be a blessing for his loved ones.