Clyde Bellecourt fought for Native Americans, was civil rights leader

The state of Minnesota, and indeed the nation as a whole lost, what we believe was a great civil rights leader last week with the passing of Clyde Bellecourt.

Bellecourt, 85, was a co-founder of the American Indian Movement, more commonly known as AIM. He died Tuesday night after a battle with prostate cancer.

By definition, Bellecourt and AIM are controversial. AIM and its supporters engaged the federal government in a violent standoff in 1973 at Wounded Knee, in protest of the squalid conditions Native Americans then faced.

The intent of this writing is not to argue what happened at Wounded Knee. We would say for the record that engaging in gun battles with federal agents isn’t going to solve your problems. It’s only going to get people killed which is what happened there: Two Indians died and two federal agents were seriously wounded.

But what Bellecourt and AIM should be given credit for is demonstrating to the nation as a whole just how awful the Indians’ lot was.

Keep in mind this was before Indian casino gaming changed everything. Unemployment was through the roof on reservations. Housing was horrible, there was a lack of medical care and substance abuse was rampant. Native American culture and religion had both taken a beating.

As a general proposition, what had been done to native peoples in this country was not less than criminal.

Bellecourt worked tirelessly against all of that. And he was successful. His death will mourned by many generations of Native Americans and a great many others, too.

Minnesota Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan tweeted, “Today, we lost a civil rights leader who fought for more than a half century on behalf of Indigenous people in Minnesota and around the world. Indian Country benefited from Clyde Bellecourt’s activism — he cleared a path for so many of us.”

We couldn’t agree more.


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