Two days ago, we lost a good man. I write to you today from the road, as I make my way northeast to celebrate the life of Clyde Bellecourt. I knew Clyde for decades. An Anishinaabe activist from the White Earth Nation, he was a co-founder of the American Indian Movement (AIM) in Minneapolis and, for years, focused on ending police brutality against Native People. He remained active throughout his long life, eventually becoming a strong advocate for eliminating offensive sports mascots.
I met Clyde in the late 1960s when AIM was young. My sister and I went to the twin cities and met up with Dennis Banks, who invited us to a protest action against the movie “Little Big Man” — and its Hollywood-style depiction of Native people and our Sun Dance.
We were all a bunch of young people fired up to get something done. Afterwards, we got invited to Red Power gatherings, which included some of the first AIM meetings. At that time, just a couple dozen of us attended. I met Clyde’s wife, Peggy, and the local women of the movement. Then I met Clyde. That’s where it all started.
AIM’s actions moved into South Dakota as a result of Dennis Banks and Clyde recruiting my first cousin, Russell Means, to be part of AIM in 1968. When Russ got involved, we expanded. Our first action was at Mount Rushmore. From a starting place of working on police brutality issues, we were able to help grow the movement until we had national awareness.
In our neighborhood and in our corner of the movement, our direction came from the reservations, the people. Unfortunately, in Minnesota, the reservations didn’t stand with AIM or back their actions. But I’m happy to say that trend changed when AIM came to South Dakota, where we found support on tribal nations such as Pine Ridge. For us as Lakotas and Dakotas, our focus was on our territory, and our actions became a family thing.
This movement has always been larger than any one individual, but there is no doubt that Clyde was a leader of his time. No matter the issues the organization confronted — in Minnesota and even internationally — he was involved. I had respect for him, and it took a lot of organizing and a lot of guts to do what he and others did in those early days. And, as the years went by, he showed up in solidarity. That set a strong example for our younger generations.
Clyde lived a long and good life. I’m in my 80s now, and for those of us who were there during the original AIM era, our ranks are getting thin. But I don’t look on death with sadness, not when we have lived this long and well. This is part of the cycle. It’s going to happen to all of us, and we should be ready. We are individuals, yes, but what we do together is a group effort. Clyde was an icon of our time for our People, and for that, I am grateful. Now it’s up to you and me to carry on his legacy of justice with whatever time we have left.
Wopila — Thank you for standing with our People, always.
Madonna Thunder Hawk
Cheyenne River Organizer
The Lakota People’s Law Project