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Dan Ninham
Special to Indian Country Today

Donny Belcourt’s resume speaks for itself.

Belcourt, Chippewa Cree Tribe from Rocky Boy’s in northern Montana, was one of the 13 athletes and two champion teams to be inducted in the Montana Indian Athletic Hall of Fame on Oct. 9 in Missoula, Montana.

The hall of fame shines on top Native athletes in sports and powwows. The late Blackfeet Nation Honorary Lifetime Chief Earl Old Person was also inducted as a powwow announcer. He passed away less than a week later.

Belcourt was a member of the 1983 state champion cross country team and a Montana state champion Golden Gloves boxer in the 112 pound division.

He attended Billings Senior High School from 1981-1983, Haskell Indian Junior College from 1983-1985, and Oklahoma State University from 1985-1988.

Belcourt was raised by his mother and his non-Native father wasn’t a part of his life.

“I was raised by my Native mother to always be proud of who I am and where I am from,” Belcourt told Indian Country Today. “I carried a very large chip on my shoulder. I attended an all-Native junior college at Haskell and this also instilled and empowered my pride in being Native American and representing not only myself.”

He was a three-time All American distance runner at Haskell in the two-mile indoor track event, 3,000-meter steeplechase outdoor track event, and led his team to a national team marathon championship.

Belcourt received a track and cross country scholarship from Oklahoma State University where he was named all conference and all region. He qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials at 1,500 and 5,000 meters in 1992 and at 1,500 meters in 1996.

“Getting a very rare opportunity at Oklahoma State University and getting the full ride I again knew and felt I was not just representing myself but leading the way for other Native athletes,” he said.

“Post-collegiately I knew I was one of a very few Native Americans that competed on a national and international level. Being Native I knew I was different and felt I had to try harder to attain recognition and represent myself, my tribe and Native Americans in a positive manner.”

Belcourt thanked his mentors. including Jerry Tuckwin and Mike Daney at Haskell.

“They balanced me and had me carry myself in a positive manner, instilling me with pride and telling me, and reminding me I was not just representing myself,” he said.

In Oklahoma, coach Dick Weis knew Belcourt was special.

“He took a chance on me and believed in me, when it was extremely rare for NCAA coaches to give full rides or even opportunity to Native athletes,” he said.

“My other mentor was my late Uncle Gerald ‘Chief’ Belcourt. I spent a lot of my childhood living with my Uncle in Rocky Boy on his ranch and he instilled in me a sense of pride, to never ‘half ass’ anything and to ‘do it like you mean it’ giving me the strength, grit and confidence to try things out of my comfort zone and to never ever give up!”

Former Haskell Indian Junior College head cross country and track coach Jerry Tuckwin and his former star athlete Donny Belcourt continue to stay in close contact. (Photo courtesy of Jerry Tuckwin)

Tuckwin, Prairie Band Potawatomi, had a stellar career as the head track and field and cross country coach at Haskell. Tuckwin has mentored countless Native athletes to reach their pinnacle in sports and in life.

In 2007, Tuckwin was inducted into the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame. He said Belcourt was a “dream to coach.”

“Donny was easy to coach and was mostly a positive recipient in a mentoring situation,” Tuckwin told Indian Country Today. “He wanted to learn, soaked up learning, and most importantly, wanted to succeed in his running endeavors.”

Daney, Choctaw, was another mentor of Belcourt at Haskell. Daney was a runner for Tuckwin and an assistant coach. He later became the head cross country and track coach when Tuckwin resigned to focus d on being the athletic director.

Daney told Indian Country Today, “Having the opportunity to work with Donny Belcourt has been just as rewarding for me as I hope it was for him. When it came down to just pure hard work, Donny never backed down, in fact, he embraced it. We come from similar backgrounds where many obstacles and adversity seemed to always pop up when running and things were going right.”

He said Belcourt never backed down during a race.

“I've seen so many talented male and female Native American runners, with more talent than Donny, fold at the slightest presence of adversity, but not Donny. It was always his plan to figure out how he was going to get through the issue, move on and keep running, even if it was running through pain.”

“In fact, I would consider Donny one of my best friends, I love him as a brother,” Daney added.

Mike Daney, former cross country and track coach at Haskell Indian Junior College and Southwest Indian Polytechnic Institute, continues to mentor Donny Belcourt. (Photo courtesy of Mike Daney)

Daney coached 22 All Americans at Haskell. He continued his coaching career at the Southwest Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI) in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The institute was a small Native community college with an enrollment of 600 students at the time yet finished as one of the top three teams for 10 consecutive years, winning the national cross country and marathon championships six times. The seven-time coach of the year and National Indian Activities Association Hall of Fame inductee coached six individual national champions and 39 All Americans.

There was a stigma during Belcourt’s college career that is diminishing during the modern era of Native athletes going to college and staying in college competing and graduating. The stigma was often the case of the athlete being lonesome for home and left sometimes before their season even started.

A Division I college coach believed in Belcourt and provided him a chance to attend college first and to compete second. Belcourt succeeded at both.

Belcourt’s old coaches continue to be positive mentors to him as well as to many others. The invisible banners and certificates on the walls acknowledge all who they have empowered on their journeys post-collegiately to this day. Donny and his wife Jo Belcourt have kept in close contact with his college coaching mentors.

Belcourt gained national notoriety when he was featured in the New York Times on Dec. 26, 1994 with the headlines: “The Search for the Next Billy Mills.”

“Everyone who reads the article always can’t believe I hitchhiked from Rocky Boy to Great Falls and I tell them that ain’t even half the story, and ask me how I got home as my return trip flight was to Billings, 250-plus miles from Rocky Boy,” he said. “I landed in Billings and found out my aunt had passed and her funeral was in the morning. I read her obituary around 7 p.m. and my friend couldn’t take me, so I asked if they could drop me off outside of town and I proceeded to hitchhike home. I must have walked and ran about 30 to 35 miles that night but I made it to my aunties services at 9 a.m. the next morning.”

Donny and his wife Jo Belcourt recently visited with his mentor college coach Dick Weis and his wife Donna at the Weis’ home in Stillwater, OK. (Photo courtesy of Donna Weis)

Belcourt’s last competitive race was a 1,500-meter race that he provisionally qualified for the 1996 Olympic Trials in Atlanta and ran 3 minutes, 42.9 seconds in Los Angeles. He rarely ran in the 25 years since then.

Belcourt spoke at Rocky Boy Schools in Box Elder a few days after his 2020 Montana Indian Athletic Hall of Fame induction. “I challenged the students at Box Elder at the end of my presentation there to a race next summer as I am going to help put on a 5K fun run at next summer’s Rocky Boy Powwow. As soon as I get home from this trip I have to start training as I don’t want to embarrass myself!”

The Montana Indian Athletic Hall of Fame Banquet

The Montana Indian Athletic Hall of Fame honored 13 individuals and two teams on Oct. 9 in Missoula.

The event also featured 2020 inductees due to last year’s banquet being canceled due to COVID-19.

Don Wetzel Jr. established the hall of fame with his father, Don Wetzel Sr., in 2007. Wetzel Jr. said the ceremony instills pride in Indigenous identity.

Don Wetzel Sr., a former Cut Bank High Sschool and Montana Grizzlies standout athlete, had a dream of recognizing Montana Native hall of fame-caliber athletes. The first class was inducted in 2007 with the help of his son Don Wetzel Jr., the story continues with the latest induction after a year removed from the pandemic.

2020 Montana Indian Athletic Hall of Fame inductees

The inductees included Jonathan Windy Boy, Chippewa Cree Tribe, powwow dancing; Clinton Small, Northern Cheyenne, rodeo; Flora High Hawk (Big Hair), Crow, distance running; Sam McCracken, Assiniboine and Sioux, Nike N7 administrator; Eymard Left Hand, Crow, basketball; Chief Earl Old Person, Blackfeet, powwow announcer; Felix McGowan, Little Shell, football, basketball, and track; Conrad Peterson, Blackfeet, football, wrestling, and track; Dave Edington, wrestling; Sandra Plenty Hoops Shield, Crow, women’s fancy shawl dance; Wes Knutson, Salish, wrestling; Donny Belcourt, Chippewa Cree Tribe, distance running; Joe Bergie, Fort Peck Tribes, football; 1975 Browning boys' state champion cross country team; and the St. Labre Braves 1977 boys' state champion basketball team.

For in-depth profiles about this year's inductees and other information, visit identityincmt.com and for individual stories click on most of their names above.

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