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AIM leader Vernon Bellecourt passes

Critic of American Indian sports monikers

By Steve Karnowski -- Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - Vernon Bellecourt, who fought against the use of Indian nicknames for sports teams as a longtime leader of the American Indian Movement, died at age 75.

Bellecourt passed away Oct. 13 at Abbott Northwestern Hospital of complications from pneumonia, said his brother, Clyde Bellecourt, a founding member of the American Indian rights group.

Just before he was put on a respirator, Vernon joked that the CIA had finally gotten him, his brother said.

''He was willing to put his butt on the line to draw attention to racism in sports,'' his brother said.

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Vernon - whose Objibwe name, WaBun-Inini, means ''Man of Dawn'' - was a member of Minnesota's White Earth band and was an international spokesman for the AIM Grand Governing Council based in Minneapolis.

Clyde helped found AIM as a militant group in 1968 and Vernon soon became involved, taking part in the 1973 occupation of the town of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. He was present only briefly during the 71-day standoff with federal agents, serving mostly as a spokesman and fund raiser, Clyde said.

Vernon was active in the campaign to free AIM activist Leonard Peltier, who was convicted of killing two FBI agents during a shootout in 1975 on the Pine Ridge reservation.

He was also involved as a negotiator in AIM's 1972 occupation of the BIA headquarters in Washington as part of the Trail of Broken Treaties caravan.

In recent years, Vernon had been active in the fight against American Indian nicknames for sports teams as president of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media.

He was arrested in Cleveland during the 1997 World Series and again in 1998 during protests against the Cleveland Indians' mascot, Chief Wahoo. Charges were dropped the first time and he was never charged in the second case.

After Wounded Knee, Vernon became a leader of AIM's work abroad, meeting with presidents such as Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, his brother said. He said they plan to list them as honorary pallbearers.

Clyde said his brother had been in Venezuela in September to meet with President Hugo Chavez to discuss Chavez's program for providing heating assistance to American Indian tribes. He fell ill around the time of his return, Clyde said.