I’ve worked with children my whole life because I believe that they are our most valuable resource and the world’s best hope for a better, brighter future – or any future at all. On my travels I’ve met others who share this view but few as passionate as Clyde Bellencourt.
Clyde Bellecourt was born in 1939 on the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota, the seventh of twelve children who were members of the Ojibwa tribe. The family lived in a small house and were very poor. Clyde had problems in school and eventually dropped out. He was angry that Native Americans, if they were talked about in school at all, were usually described as killers or savages. After quitting school and failing to find work, he became involved in burglaries and robberies and wound up in prison. It was there while on a hunger strike he read a book dealing with his Ojibwa history and he became proud to be a Native American.
After his release from prison, Clyde and two others founded the American Indian Movement in 1968 to educate people and to work for justice for Native Americans. The organization established job training, education programs and youth centers. It also lobbied successfully forcing the government to improve public housing for Indians. In the early 1970s AIM took extreme measures to call attention to the Native American cause. Clyde was one of the leaders of an armed takeover of a Bureau of Indian Affairs building in 1972 and a 71-day armed occupation of Wounded Knee massacre memorial in 1973. It was a huge privilege to meet him personally in the summer of 1975 when he was peacefully living with his family in his Tipi in the Grand Teton National Park.
I was a counsellor at a wilderness training school that had ended after I blew the whistle on the tyrannical camp director who was subsequently charged with 44 counts of physical, emotional and sexual abuse. The victims were ten teenage camp students and a group of us were attempting to rehabilitate these severely traumatised kids. Clyde invited us to visit his camp and sponteneously initiated an indigenous healing ceremony for our group. We sat in a circle inside his tipi temple and, as he talked and prayed, time became endless. Our woes of the past weeks horrific events slowly dissipated in the smoke from the peace pipe he passed around our circle. We all emerged from Clyde’s generous offering of assistance renewed and filled with tranquility and hope.
I gained a deep appreciation for Clyde’s lifelong struggle with the U.S.A. justice system after meeting him and also from my first hand experience witnessing how it fails to serve righteousness. Despite a Teton County Grand Jury validating the case against Wayne Dickey, after he had repeatedly violated the rights of innocent children, he was released from jail after only one night. He hired expensive lawyers, stalled the process for two years, pleaded he had suffered from temporary insanity and got off scott free. The outcome could and should have been very different if there actually was any true justice in the U.S. system.
The County Sheriff later wrote to me regretting that Wayne was not “prosecuted and punished to the fullest extent of the law.” He added, “We knew this would be a difficult and expensive case but we felt prepared to go all the way for a conviction……but the County Prosecutor…. is convinced that a conviction would be difficult because of Wayne’s mental stability when he performed these heinous crimes. Rounding up the witnesses from distant states and the U.K. would also incur great expense to the county. I know our deepest apologies will not begin to cover the degradations you all suffered.”
Therein lies the problem with justice in the U.S.A., the ones with money will almost always win. It’s the reason why Wayne Dickey walked free and why the Native Americans can never get a fair hearing in U.S. courts. They simply don’t have the funds to hire the best lawyers unlike the government and other wealthy criminals.
Clyde struggled with this paradigm over many years and some members of AIM became unhappy with his outspoken and radical leadership. In November 1994, he and his brother Vernon were banned for life from the movement after an AIM investigation alleged that they had been involved in eight crimes, including drug-related activities. Despite this division Clyde remained active in trying to improve the lives of his people emphasising the need for more and better education. In 2001 he called for changes in the Minneapolis public school system and served as the director of the Peacemaker Center for Indian Youth, chairman of the Heart of the Earth Center, and organiser of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and the Media. He also wrote his book.
In 2019 Clyde was diagnosed with stage four metastatic prostate cancer, which is treatable, but not curable. As an 82-year-old activist he remains committed to the causes he embraced a half-century ago as a founder of the American Indian Movement, an organisation that became the national voice of Indian activism. He still goes into places where other people are intimidated, and he goes in with a purpose of looking after his community. He remains an inspiring renegade warrior never afraid to speak up for justice.