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Mark Trahant
Indian Country Today

Nee-gon-we-way-we-dun introduced himself. He said he was from the Three Fire Society, Gathering of the Sacred Pipes, a Sun Dancer, and the American Indian Movement.

“My spirit name is Nee-gon-we-way-we-dun,” he said. “The translation of that is Thunder Before the Storm.”

Nee-gon-we-way-we-dun said he was only 11-years-old when a Becker County judge gave him another name, “Incorrigible.”

Clyde Bellecourt died Tuesday at 85.

There is a story here. Or a story layered on another story. Make that stories.

This story starts with an interview. I was interviewing Bill Means at the AIM Interpretive Center in Minneapolis. Bellecourt interrupts. “Why are you interviewing him? You need to talk to me.” So I finished one interview and spent the next couple of hours talking to Bellecourt.

He began talking about his parents, Charles James and Angeline Bellecourt. He said he was “kinda in the middle” of the 12 children at number seven. “Both my father and mother when they were children, young age, my mom only 9 years old, she was practically kidnapped from the reservation I live on, Anishinaabe in Northern Minnesota White Earth, and placed in a boarding school and kept there for nine solid years, never allowed to go home, and it was run by the Catholic Church which was subsidized by the United States federal government and it was an effort to strip us of our language, our culture and our traditional way of life, and my mother rejected that.”

Bellecourt said only later did he learn that his father went through the same boarding school experience at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. When World War I began, his father enlisted at school, Bellecourt said, then added, “No, he was enlisted. He did not enlist. He was inducted into the services along with 50,000 other Native people.”

“My father had just turned 16 when he ended up in Germany after some basic training,” Bellecourt recalled. He ended up on the front lines, was captured toward the end of the war and was in a German prison camp. When the Allied forces were getting close, the prisoners were gassed and gunned. “My father ended up with 17 machine gun wounds and he came home gassed and bloated.”

The reward? In 1924, Charles Bellecourt became a U.S. citizen under the citizenship act.

“One day we were out late in the evening, a bunch of us boys, and we were out in the woods picking chokecherries, and all of the sudden we see these three women, ghost-like, they come out of the woods. They had these black capes on and white habits like that, and it scared the hell out of us,” Bellecourt said. “We thought we were seeing ghosts or something and we ran all the way home.”

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His parents laughed and said the Catholic nuns were checking on why the boys were out of school. He was sent to school – where he learned how to run away.

“It was the kind of school where if you don't go to church on Sunday, you know, on Monday morning they would ask you,” he said. “I hated school.”

Bellecourt then showed his hands. “All of my knuckles have been scarred since that day, so I started running away from that,” he said. That led him to juvenile court before a judge who asked him to go back to school and apologize. “They judged me incorrigible.” He was given a choice between Boys Town and Redwing State Training School, a military school.

“I ended up doing three years, three years just for truancy and being what they call incorrigible, and so I'm certified that way, I'm certified incorrigible, and I tell people that's the way I've been ever since.”

American Indian Movement co-founder Clyde Bellecourt, second from the right, joins in a solemn moment observed before the signing of a statement ending the bloody standoff between federal forces and the AIM members at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on April 5, 1973. From left are: Russell Means, AIM leader; Kent Frizzell, U.S. assistant attorney general; Chief Tom Bad Cobb and AIM leaders Pedro Bisonette and Carter Camp. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Bellecourt ended up in the Twin Cities. “There were no jobs. Racism was very bad and I got involved with some other kids and ended up on a simple burglary charge and was placed in Hennepin County Jail,” he said. “There's only three people ever escaped from the Hennepin County Jail here in the state of Minnesota and I'm one of them that made it.”

There was construction going on in the juvenile section and they rigged one of the doors with a rubber band rolled around the latch. A door opened into the hatch and that became an escape route.

“It was a real cold, bitter night and we tried everything, you know, tried to steal a car, we got stuck, tried to snatch a purse and we got beat up over it. Finally about 4 in the morning or about 3 in the morning, I called my mother and she says, ‘Where are you?’ And I said, ‘We're down here on Hennepin Avenue.’ ‘What? What are you doing?’

“I told her we escaped from jail and she thought I was joking, and I said, ‘No, mom, I escaped and I want to come home,’ and she said, ‘You get yourself right back down there right now,’ so me and Fred went down and the sergeant that was on duty was down in the basement with his foot up on the desk and he was sleeping. I grabbed his shoe and woke him up, and I said, ‘We want to go back to jail.’ He said, ‘What do you mean, go back to jail? Get out of here right now or you are going to go to jail.’

“I said, 'Well, we escaped here about 5 o'clock last night' – nobody ever escapes from Hennepin County jail. I said, ‘Well, you better call up there,’ so he called up there and they just found out that we had escaped, so the next morning there were big headlines in the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, ‘Ill winds’ – there was a blizzard that night, it says ‘Ill winds blows two boys right back to city jail.’”

A poster of the American Indian Movement in Clyde Bellecourt's Minneapolis office in 2018. (Photo by Mark Trahant)

That escape route led to reformatory school and eventually prison. There he began education courses, focused on trades, but he balked at making license plates in what they called the twine shop.

“It's the first time I thought about being free and doing something with my life and because I refused to go to the twine shop,” he said.

So many of the Indians in prison were there for what we would now call structural reasons, alcohol abuse, failed education, poverty. That was the missing piece. The prison didn’t help people find the right skill or trade. Or even to go into Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, or to do something with their life.

At Stillwater, he met Eddie Benton-Banai, Anishinaabe, who believed that if you could teach Indians about history and culture that would build pride and people would do something with that.

“I started having dreams, you know, about being an eagle and flying over a Sun Dance in South Dakota and seeing all these horses,” he said. “I started having different kinds of dreams in my life, and so I made an agreement if they could get me out of the hole, put me back in the honor dormitory, get me back into the power plant so I could become a first class engineer, I would come out and help them, and they knew I was an organizer …, and we created the first Indian studies anywhere in America in Stillwater State prison…

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“I became the co-chief and I started learning about who I really was, what clan I belonged to, why we don't have Indian names, why we don't know anything about our culture, and Eddie Benton became my grand chief,” he said. “He taught all of us about our culture, made us feel good. We dropped the average time of Indian inmates from over six years all the way down to three years and two-year periods of time.”

Bellecourt said Benton-Banai saved his life.

“I said to myself, ‘If we can do this in prison, why can't we do it outside? Why can't we get in and people organized outside to take control over their lives, take control over their community and build a movement to pull people together and get what is rightfully ours and use the treaty as our effort to do that?’ So Eddie got out first. He got out about six months before me and he came to Minneapolis and he went around to all – there are only two or three existing organizations then – and he told them what they had to do, they had to get back to their culture and their traditions, and everybody kind of laughed at him, you know? ‘Who are you to come out of prison, come and tell us what to do?’”

The first organization was called the Concerned Indian American Coalition and after about six months it was only about 80 people.

Bellecourt by then was working at Northern Power States Company “as a first-class engineer.”

“I would probably be one of the biggest polluters in the world today had it not been for Eddie Benton and the Movement,” he said. “On July 28, 1968, I got up and spoke and talked about what I would do if I was in a leadership role, what I experienced as a little boy and how we have to change education, we have to teach our young people about their own culture, their own history. They have to know about their spirituality because they're not going to church or nothing and they have to be sober to do all that.”

Clyde Bellecourt, left, a founder of the American Indian Movement, shakes hands with Nelson Mandela, right, and gets a smile from Sheila Sisulu, South African Ambassador to the United States at a news conference in Minneapolis, Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2000. (Photo by Mike Zerby, courtesy of the Star-Tribune)

Clyde Bellecourt, left, a founder of the American Indian Movement, shakes hands with Nelson Mandela, right, and gets a smile from Sheila Sisulu, South African Ambassador to the United States at a news conference in Minneapolis, Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2000.

How? Bellecourt said he coined the term, “confrontation politics.” That meant pressing issues in public, at the city council, the school board, pushing civil rights, fighting against police brutality.

Then he asked Northern States Power for time off so that he could be the national director of the American Indian Movement. The company gave him the time and paid his salary for a year.

Bellecourt laughed about that. “I ended up taking over 35,000 acres of their land in Wisconsin.” The company had a grand plan to build a dam, block off river water, and flood tribal lands; instead the company lost its lease.

The American Indian Movement was a challenge to the very societal structure that had been accepted, the structure that led too many young people to prison or death.

“We looked at White European education, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and organized religion as the three worst enemies of Indian people. They work day in and day out to strip us of our language, our culture, and our tradition, put us into boarding schools, then relocation programs where 60 percent of us live in urban settings today,” Bellecourt said. “They didn't get this land for nothing. They didn't get it for nothing. All the gold that was taken out of the Black Hills fills Fort Knox, that belongs to us, and the money that's appropriated by the Congress of the United States to help us Indian people, we found out that 80 cents of every dollar is used in administrative costs. 30,000 bureaucrats work within the Bureau of Indian Affairs system, and probably 5 percent of them are only Indian. And so we looked at them as the three worst enemies of Indian people and we made a statement … we would never give up another inch or another ounce of our land and if necessary, and I meant it when I said it, if necessary, we would die for what we believed in, like our great chiefs and our great leaders.”

AIM’s founding did shake up that structure. “J. Edgar Hoover had us on his top hit list,” he said. “We were number three – civil rights, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Black Panthers, Weather Underground, even the National Organization of Women were on his hit list.”

So much of the early story of the American Indian Movement is tied to the biographies of those early leaders: Bellecourt, his brother, Vernon; Russell, Bill, and Ted Means; Lehman Brightman; Eddie Benton-Banai; Dennis Banks; Pat Bellanger; Madonna Thunder Hawk; and so many others. Or the philosophical guidance from Hank Adams and Vine Deloria Jr.

These efforts led to the creation of The Legal Rights Center, Heart of the Earth Survival School, the Trail of Broken Treaties, and of course, Wounded Knee. And along the way there are many chapters of success, chaos, tragedy and civil rights.

Bellecourt said he was most proud of the spiritual recovery.

“At that particular point in my history, I had restraining orders against me,” Bellecourt said. “I couldn't even enter the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, because in 1971 after reading about The Sun Dance and all these beautiful things in prison, I finally had the opportunity to go to a Sun Dance on Pine Ridge,” he said. “I thought I was at the wrong place. There were Indian people dancing but there's merry-go-rounds, Ferris wheels, and everything around it. The Sun Dance is a four-day fast — day and night, you don't eat no food, no water. You dance from morning to night, you dance all day, you go to sweat lodges to purify your body outside and inside, you pray and sing and dance all day, and it's a reenactment of birth.

“Then the fourth day they come and after you're completely purified, they pierce your ear and they tie you back to the tree of life and you're going back into the womb to be reborn again. It's very, very sacred, but it was outlawed in 1890. That's what brought about the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890.”

He said he was like a little boy again. But that changed in the afternoon. The carnival had come to town.

“They bring the powwow drum, and all the bootleggers come, everybody's drunk, the rodeo's going on, Sun Dancers are walking around sucking on snow cones and eating hamburgers and all that and I'm thinking – I start crying, I'm so angry and I'm so confused – I can't believe what I'm witnessing. Here comes a spiritual leader named Leonard Crow Dog. He asked me what was wrong and I told him.”

Then he meets another “giant of a man,” Lehman Brightman out of the University of California at Berkeley, and he says, ‘“I know what you're feeling, brother.’”

“We start walking around the arbor, and who do I run into? Dennis Banks and Russell Means. They're dancing there and one's eating a snow cone and the other one has a hamburger, and I said, ‘What is wrong with you?’ They said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘You're supposed to be fasting. It's supposed to go for four solid days and then you pierce,’ and they kind of chuckled at me and they said, ‘Well, it's not like that anymore.’”

“I confronted my two brothers, Russell and Dennis. I said, ‘Listen, if we don't take back our spirituality and our culture today, we might as well go dig a hole and jump in it and cover ourselves up.’”

That was the message that stuck. Bellecourt said there are hundreds of Sun Dances today, throughout the Americas. And without the carnivals.

“Indian people are Sun Dancing today,” he said. “They're purifying themselves.Their families are coming back together. Hundreds of thousands have given up the alcohol and drugs and everything that they had them on, and that's all attributed to the American Indian Movement.”

The legacy of Clyde Bellecourt, certified incorrigible.

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This article was updated with the correct date of Bellecourt's death. 

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