Vernon Bellecourt: The man who spoke in capital letters


It is always difficult to confine a description of a great person’s life to a few words. In a sentence it could be said that Vernon Bellecourt was a man who found fortune and left his poor background but who then left fortune to voluntarily live the rest of his life as a poor man.

Vernon F. Bellecourt, WaBun-Inini. Day Break Man. White Earth Anishinabe Nation. October 17, 1931 – October 13, 2007. .

Those up close to him saw his many flaws but those at a distance only saw his character and resolve to champion American Indian causes: among them protection of tribal sover- eignty; civil disobedience when Indian issues fell on deaf ears; the degradation of Indian people in the hands of sports teams; and internationally–the call to recog- nize Indian sovereignty and basic human rights.

This duality of a man who could be a pest and a man who could articulate the common cause that Indian people have with human- ity was admittedly vexing to the few but admired by the many. It made him hard to describe in life but those who followed and sup- ported him have no doubts about his greatness.

Vernon Bellecourt’s character gave him the courage to do things others thought were outrageous or dangerous, and it gave him the thickness of hide to withstand accusations, even those of murder.

To those who accused him he gave little acknowledgement that the charges outweighed the importance of his work. He withstood these slings and arrows while he carefully calculated his next steps in pushing sports teams offline in their weird embrace of Indian names. He sought out relationships in the name of Indian justice with enemy states of the United States. This clearly was not an average person.

There was one poignant moment that I think defined his ability to bring calm to an otherwise confused, even violent situa- tion. I was covering the Bureau of Indian Affairs takeover in 1972. Landslide winner president Nixon was in office and sending emissaries to talk with the American Indian Movement leadership. I stayed in the building the whole seven days and on the fifth night George Crossland vi si t ed briefly. He was a prominent Os a ge attorney who worked on Indian wa t e r rights. At the time there were open five-gallon cans of gasoline situated on most of the floors of the building. People stepped carefully around the smelly objects. The no smok- ing ban was occasionally violated to the horror of those close to the smoker.

Crossland pleaded with me to find someone who would save the water rights office file cabinets. These, unlike other files in the building, contained original, unduplicated records of water legal and other issues across the U.S. It was a tough call for me. As a reporter I was not there to cross the line into being part of the story. But I agreed, and Crossland left looking frightened and I went to look for someone who could help in the situation. The word was going around that the police or military would attempt entry, in which case the building would be torched by its occupiers. I recognized Vernon Bellecourt’s tall figure hurrying down the steps. I ran over and told him of Crossland’s plea. He nodded but was somewhat noncommittal, I thought. But I pursued the idea and the gravity of losing those records changed his mind and he ordered the files removed and put into the auditorium, which had no gas in it. (I surmised he had other pressing things to do, but he apparently set those aside).

As the crisis continued to build momentum and some of the occu- piers began to destroy records, Vernon’s order to keep the water rights files intact held. Vernon’s brother Clyde was part of the negotiation team with the White House representatives (Leonard Garment and Harrison Loesch), but inside the building, order was not always holding. In the end, millions of records could be seen on the floors, grist for the open cans of gas. But as close as it came to being an inferno, the building did not go up in flames.

It was a tense moment that passed. In the growing chaos inside the Bureau of Indian Affairs building Indian sovereignty was helped historically by Vernon Bellecourt’s decision to save the water rights documents.

Now, 35 years later, Vernon Bellecourt has gone to another world. Much has happened in his life since 1972 but among his many accomplishments was his push for growing acknowledgement of Indian human rights. Just days earlier, on September 12, 2007, the United Nations had passed an historic declaration: United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It said among other things that it recognized: “the urgent need to respect and promote the inherent rights of indigenous peoples which derive from their political, economic and social structures and from their cultures, spiritual traditions, histories and philosophies, especially their rights to their lands, territories and resourc- es.”

Decades of travel to Geneva to put the cause of Indian rights before the United Nations had finally yielded results. At the UN historic moment, not without notice was the “no” vote of the United States. But also not without notice were the “yes” votes of Venezuela and Bolivia. These two nations now have elected Indian presidents.

Now, Minneapolis former Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, House Representative Karen Clark, and other public officials crowded into the All Nations Indian Church to attend an Anishinabe Miidewin Mahdjon ceremony. American Indian Movement members from far and wide came to sit with Vernon and engage in the Mahdjon (journey). He was majestically handsome in his plain wooden casket, dressed in traditional clothing and wearing some of the signature jewelry he was so well known for. Pendleton blankets were fitted under his head and around his body as pillow and shawl. He was well outfitted for the journey he was about to take. The nearby stands boasting large floral displays paled by compari- son to his splendor.

Mayor Belton, who came alone and quietly found a seat in the crowded room, soon took part in the ceremony with little prompt- ing or hesitation. She was a solitary figure of dignity, paying homage to a man who most assuredly challenged her and pushed her to consider things she might have preferred not to.

Vernon’s Brother Clyde remarked on the number of cars parked in solidly for blocks. But he too was subdued in the enormity of the moment. His wife Peggy, Vernon’s companion Janice, his children and grandchildren, and friends from far and wide were all focused on giving Vernon a reverent farewell.

In previous times, the same church reverberated with Clyde or Vernon’s booming voices, urging a call to action on some issue of great importance to the Indian community. Vernon, it was noted, was a man who spoke in capital letters. Flyers would litter the room of the humble chapel. Christian and Indian traditional alike would answer the call to come to the aid of fellow Indians, living and dead. It was impossible not to feel that half of the great Bellecourt institution was now gone. Pity those, it will be said, that never knew these two in full flower and action.