BEMIDJI -- Though nearly 85 and battling terminal cancer, civil rights organizer Clyde Bellecourt of White Earth Nation was in good spirits on Monday while he recounted the history of the American Indian Movement, which he helped found during the 1960s.
He spoke before a virtual crowd of Bemidji State University students and community members over Zoom on Monday, in recognition of Indigenous Peoples Day.
Bellecourt, whose Ojibwe name is Nee-gon-we-way-we-dun, which means "Thunder Before the Storm,” is the only remaining living founder of the AIM movement. He spoke about the history of the movement, how it came to be, and what it means to Native Americans today.
AIM -- the American Indian Movement -- has played a pivotal role in some of the most famous Native American related civil rights issues in recent history, including the occupation of The Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington D.C. in 1972, the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973, and more recently, the fight against the use of Native American mascots in sports.
“It started in solitary confinement,” Bellecourt explained, recalling how he became filled with pride for his culture within the walls of the Stillwater prison.
After his time in prison, AIM began to take form. A meeting sparked in the summer of 1968 by a group of Native American community activists led by George Mitchell, Dennis Banks and Clyde Bellecourt, who were frustrated by discrimination and federal policy. The group came together to discuss the critical issues restraining them, and take their own control. Out of this, AIM was born.
He explained why the choice was made to be the American Indian Movement versus any other name. “Indian is what they used to oppress us, and Indian is what we’ll use to gain our freedom,” he said.
Bellecourt and AIM's leaders spoke out against high unemployment, slum housing and racist treatment, fought for treaty rights and the reclamation of tribal land and advocated on behalf of urban Native Americans whose situation bred illness and poverty.
Over the next few years, significant protests by AIM drew the attention of federal law enforcement, which led to the standoff at Wounded Knee in 1973, drawing worldwide attention.
He spoke about how he was unprepared for this global attention, at one point finding himself addressing the United Nations in Switzerland.
“The next thing we knew, we could hear it all over the world,” he said of the AIM anthem.
Bellecourt’s address was not just a historical recount of the movement, but also an attempt to inspire and inform the next generation.
He said the movement is only growing stronger, and recommended those listening to further inform themselves about their history. Bellecourt also expressed a desire to be at BSU speaking to students in person.
Bellecourt’s nephew, Bemidji State professor, White Earth member and Bemidji Area Schools Board Chair, John Gonzalez, also spoke during the event about how AIM influenced his life -- he said the movement lead him to be proud of his heritage and achieve goals he might not have otherwise.
“Without them, a lot of us Native people wouldn’t be where we are today,” Gonzalez said.