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Listening to the 'Thunder Before the Storm'

BEMIDJI--Decades before the world knew about Standing Rock, Clyde Bellecourt was hunkering down at Wounded Knee, S.D., and the Bureau of Indian Affairs' offices in Washington, D.C.

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Clyde Bellecourt, one of the founders of the American Indian Movement, speaks Monday during a presentation at BSU’s American Indian Resource Center (Maggi Stivers | Bemidji Pioneer)
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BEMIDJI-Decades before the world knew about Standing Rock, Clyde Bellecourt was hunkering down at Wounded Knee, S.D., and the Bureau of Indian Affairs' offices in Washington, D.C.

The longtime American Indian activist is the founder of the American Indian Movement, and he spoke about the history of the movement and his activism Monday at Bemidji State University's American Indian Resource Center.

"We were willing to stay there and fight it out," Bellecourt said of the Wounded Knee occupation. "Not one single person left."

Bellecourt, 80, remembered how a woman there told him that the nascent movement "turned the light on" at Wounded Knee, which was in an area that had become notorious for lax policing and discrimination, after years of total metaphorical darkness.

Bellecourt told AIRC attendees about his his younger days, too, when he bounced in and out of jails-even temporarily escaping one before returning voluntarily shortly afterward-and noticed that most American Indian inmates were there for alcohol-related crimes.

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"Murderers, rapists, people like that were getting out of jail before Indians," he said.

The movement has also pushed strongly against sports teams that use American Indian Imagery, including the University of North Dakota's "Fighting Sioux" mascot, which the university recently changed to "Fighting Hawks." Bellecourt has also fought for equal treatment from the justice system and for Native housing rights.

He recalled that the movement's initial name was "CIA"-short for "concerned Indian American coalition"-but decided against using the same acronym as the federal government's widely known intelligence wing. Members settled on "AIM" because, Bellecourt recalled, the movement was always "aim"ing for something.

"It's amazingly tremendous for our students and community to be able to come listen to someone like him," said Bill Blackwell, the resource center's executive director, who added that Bellecourt is a personal hero of his. "My dad was good friends with all these guys, so it's pretty nice for me to be able to hear some of the stories."

Bellecourt stayed afterward to chat with attendees and sign copies of his book, "The Thunder Before the Storm," which takes its title from his American Indian name.

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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