Civil Rights Leader Clyde Bellecourt, Co-Founder of the American Indian Movement, Dies at the Age of 85

On a sad day for the country’s Native American community, news broke on Jan. 11 that civil rights leader Clyde Bellecourt had died.

Brad Dress of The Hill reported that Bellecourt’s son Wolf confirmed on Minnesota Public Radio that his dad had died from prostate cancer at the age of 85.

As the co-founder of the American Indian Movement (AIM), Dress said, “Bellecourt’s death was mourned by many in the Native American community, including Lisa Bellanger, the current leader of AIM. 

“I really wouldn’t be who I am now without him,” Bellanger told CBS Minnesota. “AIM created an awakening on a national level of our people.”

In a statement on Twitter, Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said: “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.”

Bellecourt died just over a year after the death of the other co-founder of AIM, Eddie Benton-Banai. Together, the two men formed the activist group in Minnesota in 1968. Within years, it had grown into a national movement and helped shape some of the most important government policies impacting Native American life in the U.S.

“Bellecourt was a fierce advocate for equality and justice, leading AIM as it protested police brutality and a lack of opportunities for Indigenous people,” Dress reported. “He led the group through 1972’s Trail of Broken Treaties march in Washington, D.C., and the 1992 protest of the Super Bowl over the Washington Football Team’s former name, which he said was a racist slur against Native Americans.”

Dress added that Bellecourt was there during some of AIM’s more difficult times, such as when the group didn’t agree on how to best challenge the government. 

“The more radical side launched the 1973 protest at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, which turned violent and led to the deaths of two people,” Dress reported.

Born in 1936 in northern Minnesota’s White Earth Indian Reservation, Bellecourt and his family belong to the Ojibwe tribe, one of the largest Native American tribal organizations in the United States.

In a 2016 interview with Dress, Bellecourt reflected on the significance of the American Indian Movement and the work he had achieved. 

“[Native Americans] had been beaten down so far we didn’t think nothing could change,” Bellecourt said. “[But] we proved to America that we weren’t enemies.” 

 

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