Clyde Bellecourt is a Native American advocate not only on the local levels, but also the national and international levels. Bellecourt is a member of the Anishinabe- Ojibwe Nation. His Indian name, Nee-gon-we-way-we-dun, means “Thunder Before the Storm.”
As a child, he was forced to go to a boarding school where his Native language and culture were forbidden by means of cruel punishment. He was angered that nothing was being taught about Native Americans in schools and often acted against rules that suppressed his culture. After dropping out of school and ending up in prison, Bellecourt was determined to educate people about indigenous peoples and improve the standard of living for Native Americans.
“[Bellecourt has been] advocating for equality and social justice where there has been neither. He advocates for not only Native Americans, but for people everywhere, whose voices—whose lives have been silenced. He advocates for women and children in violent relationships; for youth who are bullied; for people in prison who need something to hope for,” Professor of Nursing Barbara Zust said, “He is an American legend in terms of civil rights.”
Clyde Bellecourt was invited by the Gustavus Nursing Program and will be visiting Gustavus to share his story about the ‘American Indian Movement: Past, Present, and Future’ on Nov. 11 at 7 p.m. in Alumni Hall.
Bellecourt is founder of the American Indian Movement of 1968. He played a major role in the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973.
He is the organizer of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and the Media to change the names of sports teams that are oppressive and offensive to the indigenous culture. Bellecourt is the founder and Chairman of the American Indian Opportunities Industrializtion Center which has helped over 14,000 people who were on wellfare obtain full time jobs. He has also started many other programs in Minnesota, such as the Native American Community Clinic.
The American Indian Movement (AIM) was founded on July 28, 1968 to combat the unjust conditions indigenous people in Minnesota were experiencing. The AIM helped to establish job training, education programs and youth centers, and forced the government to improve the living conditions and rights of Native Americans.
American defense attorney, author Ken Stern, previously represented AIM.
“Clyde, like his brother Vernon, is part of a group of people who is constantly advocating for change in a mainstream culture that devalues and trivializes Indian people,” Stern said.
Stern also addresses the hot-topic controversies surrounding sports mascots. “I take the scenario, change the players, and see if the same rules apply. And one can imagine, if we had the New York Jews football team . . . or the Washington Blackskins or a parallel term, people would never tolerate that for a second. But, somehow, with Indian people, it’s okay. That issue is something Clyde is pushing for, and why I’m glad he is,” Stern said.
Previously, native language and culture were forbidden by means of severe punishment in schools. Hundreds of people ran away from those schools and froze to death. Treaties that were supposed to give indigenous people the right to their language, culture, and their spiritual way of life were all being violated.
“We were at the bottom of the totem pole. They had everything, but our spirit,” Bellecourt said.
It was a 30-year battle by the indigenous people that finally won the United Nations “Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” in 2007.
AIM helped to produce one of the top treaty programs in America. It took just over one month to get the five million funding needed to start a health professions program for Native Americans. Another five million in funding started a program to train people in computer programs for health professions. There have been over 44,000 people trained in these programs in a 33-year time period.
Bellecourt also helped to form the Native American Community Clinic in Minneaplois, Minnesota. These are all important accomplishments.
“Culture is an important part of healing and wellbeing,” Zust said. “No one questions whether or not we need diverse health care providers to serve a diverse population. The problem is not everyone is working to help make it happen. Clyde has been a relentless activist to restore cultural appreciation among Native Americans,” Zust said.
Bellecourt and thousands of others will be marching ten blocks down Franklin Avenue to the Metrodome Stadium in Minneaoplis on Thursday, Nov. 7, when the Minnesota Vikings take on the Washington Redskins. This protest is part of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and the Media to demand the Washington Redskins change their team name.
“The ‘r’ word [Redskins] is no different than the ‘n’ word. They want to make us mascots for their fun and games. Native Americans are people not mascots. Everybody in America is joining in on this effort,” Bellecourt said.
President Obama has spoken about this issue on national television and colleges like the University of Minnesota, Macallester College, Augsburg College, and Hamline University are all joining in on the coalition. Bellecourt also encouraged Gustavus to participate.
Rallies and protests such as the National Coalition on Racism in Sports in the Media, had changed over 2,000 high school, college, and university team names in Minnesota alone.
“People should be able to enjoy their favorite sport’s team without it being at the expense of a people’s culture. What if there’s nothing in it for the student? What if all that’s in it for the student is the opportunity to honor this elder as a great civil rights’ leader and listen to his story…without a doubt, I believe students will learn a great deal from Clyde,” Zust said.