Go in peace, Brother Vernon, on your flight to the Spirit World
Vernon Bellecourt came into this life born WaBun-Inini — Man of Dawn, in Ojibwa — on October 17, 1931, on Minnesota’s White Earth reservation, where unemployment was 95 percent when he was growing up. He moved to Minneapolis when he was 16.
For most of his life, Vernon was a true and consummate warrior fighting not only the battles of his beloved people, but sitting at the table with world leaders in his role as a “diplomat for justice” (as stated in a UN piece) fighting the battle for the world’s disenfranchised. His funeral was October 17, 2007.
I had the pleasure of knowing Vernon for over 35 years. He co-founded AIM (American Indian Movement) in 1968 and served as AIM negotiator at the 1972 occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C., as part of the Trail of Broken Treaties caravan.
He was with Jesse Jackson in Operation Push in Chicago in 1973. In 1974, under United Nations auspices, Vernon helped organize an international conference on the rights of native peoples. We intoned “We shall overcome” alongside the American Indian’s “We shall overrun.”
The Minneapolis Star Tribune paid appropriate and well-deserved recognition to this great man on October 15.
Some who came to his wake at All Nations Church in South Minneapolis were government officials from such African countries as Ghana and Libya, paying their respects to a man who has now taken flight to the Spirit World, a sign of the respect and admiration for him around the world.
It was heartwarming to see former Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton at his wake. Other politicians were notable in their absence.
As president of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media, Vernon reminded everyone that Indians were people, not mascots or artifacts (protesting the tens of thousands of skeletal remains of American Indians held at various universities, anthropological centers and museums, and thus denied burial).
Truly we “pass this way” but once. To come this way and do nothing for humanity nor your people is to forfeit your right and claim to a legacy. Vernon Bellecourt leaves a legacy rich in achievements, success and caring.
It is in the context of extreme U.S. government repression of the American Indian Movement that Vernon and other indigenous leaders are best appreciated. He became an internationalist and was a founder of the International Indian Treaty Council, a staunch advocate, supporter and speaker for indigenous peoples around the world.
He understandably sought help wherever he could find it. Although reviled in Minnesota, he sat with leaders of international importance, such as Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu. Vernon was loved around the world, where he supported all indigenous people, including the Irish, Venezuelan, Cuban, Libyan, Nicaraguan, Palestinian, etc.
His first trip to see a foreign leader was in 1989, to Libya, when he met with Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, who pledged a billion dollars for American Indians — which the U.S. government didn’t allow.
Unable to obtain free or cheap heating oil for our Indian reservations here, he got it from Venezuelan President Hugo Chaves. It was partly by meeting with controversial foreign figures like Libya’s Qaddafi, Yasir Arafat, Chavez, etc., that Vernon was able to gain international recognition for Indian nations and their treaties.
Vernon Bellecourt, this humble son of Minnesota, sat at the table of international power. His council and wisdom were sought by those who walked the international stage in the fight for freedom. Vernon loved his people and was displeased with anyone who had no caring for those considered to be the least of our citizens, particularly the children of the world.
As we have pointed out in this column, Vernon fought against the use of despicable Indian names for sports teams. In this regard, not many will forget his arrest in October 1997, in Cleveland, Ohio, and the discomfort he brought on Ted Turner and Jane Fonda as they did the “tomahawk chop” at Atlanta Braves games.
But it was his concern for the future of the world’s children that brought an even greater demand for his counsel and for his wisdom.
Some forget that not every private citizen gets asked to address the United Nations, as did Vernon. At the time, Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega probably said it best when he called Vernon Bellecourt the most compelling spokesman for the indigenous people of the world.
Vernon Bellecourt will be missed on the local and world stages. You only pass this way once, and to have come and seen and said nothing will guarantee a bleak recollection and remembrance of your presence. But to have come, to have seen, to have spoken, and to have reached out to make a difference, to make a change, and to provide hope accords Vernon the right to be called forever one of the great warriors on the long and unbroken civil rights trail on behalf of his people.
Go in peace, our brother, and may you be greeted by the giants of our time, yesterday and today.