American Indian Movement leader Vernon Bellecourt would have celebrated his 76th birthday Oct. 17, but it turned out to be the date of his burial.
Bellecourt died Oct. 13 in a Minneapolis hospital from complications of diabetes and an E. coli infection in his lungs. He was surrounded by family and friends, who said that he passed peacefully within three minutes after being removed from a respirator.
''Of all 12 of us siblings, only me and my sister are left,'' said Bellecourt's brother, Clyde Bellecourt, also a longtime activist in Minneapolis. ''It's hard to think about what we'll do without him.'' Bellecourt was laid to rest on family land on the White Earth Chippewa Reservation in northwestern Minnesota.
Bellecourt's Anishinaabe name was WaBun-Inini, which means Man of Dawn. As a White Earth Band of Chippewa Indians tribal member, he once served on the tribal council and was Minneapolis-area vice president of the National Congress of American Indians.
''Vernon was a great representative of the Ojibwe Nation and one of the great communicators of our generation,'' said William A. Means, Oglala Lakota, Bellecourt's friend, fellow activist and community organizer. ''He was the best at getting across the message of treaty rights, human rights, mascots and racism to people from the grass-roots all the way to national officials.''
Means lauded Bellecourt's work as president of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media, his support of our lawsuit against the disparaging name of the Washington football team and his efforts on behalf of the International Indian Treaty Council, which Means served as president for two decades. He commended what turned out to be the final work of Bellecourt's life: ''Getting another year's heating oil for 27 tribes from the people of Venezuela and CITGO.'' Bellecourt returned from Venezuela shortly before being hospitalized.
Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota, praised Bellecourt's leadership of the AIM Grand Governing Council in Minneapolis. Westerman recalled a 1968 meeting in Denver, ''where Vernon, Clyde, DJ [Dennis J. Banks, Leech Lake Chippewa] and I started the American Indian Movement; then they went to Minneapolis and made it official.''
Westerman spoke to me from a hospital bed in Los Angeles, where he was recovering from a myelodysplasia syndrome incident. ''Now, all of us guys are getting up there. All that traveling - the life's been hard on us.'' Westerman, 71, is a singer/songwriter and actor who first rose to prominence in 1969, when his collaboration with Vine Deloria Jr. resulted in Westerman's first album, named after Deloria's bestselling book, ''Custer Died For Your Sins.''
I last saw Bellecourt in November 2005 at the public service following Deloria's private inurnment in Golden, Colo. Westerman was closing the service and invited all the AIM people to join him and sing the AIM song in Deloria's honor. Ward Churchill - who arrived late and loudly derided the family's projected images of Deloria on a back wall - started making his way to the front of the room.
Westerman cleverly called out the name of the man who had helped expose Churchill as a pseudo-Indian more than 15 years before he was fired for plagiarism by the University of Colorado: ''Vernon Bellecourt, come on up here.'' Upon hearing the name of his nemesis, Churchill threw his hands in the air and left in a huff, taking with him the gathering's only discordant note.
Seeing Westerman, Bellecourt and others together that day reminded me that these were brave men and women who had put themselves in danger for the rights of all Native peoples, so I joined them in a show of solidarity. Afterward, a friend said, ''I didn't know you were AIM.'' I wasn't, but that wasn't the point. It was a respect thing. I remember marveling at Bellecourt's verbal skills. He was like an old jazz musician who never had a lesson or needed a rehearsal - he could just play.
Bellecourt was a stand-up guy, even when he was in a wheelchair, as he often was over the last five years. He had a quick wit and a keen sense of what was important at any given moment, and was never a quisling or fair-weather friend.
''Vernon Bellecourt was serious about services to Natives, and he reached out to be a leader in the community,'' said Gerald Vizenor, White Earth Chippewa, a writer and professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico. ''He took part in many activities, including an interest in contemporary Native arts. I was impressed that he attended shows and exhibitions of Native American art.''
''I crossed many paths and traveled many roads with Vernon,'' said Phyllis Young, Hunkpapa Lakota/Yanktonai Dakota, a community activist and a founder of Women of All Red Nations. ''Vernon spent his life in pursuit of a better life for all Indian people. He did it very aggressively and never stopped, in spite of age and ailments and opposition.''
Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.