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Bellecourt remembered as diplomat for justice



WHITE EARTH, Minn. - American Indian activist Vernon Bellecourt, who died of pneumonia Saturday at the age of 75, made a name for himself on the world stage.

But he never lost sight of where he came from, said Erma Vizenor, chairwoman of the White Earth Band of Chippewa

"Vernon's heart was always at White Earth," said Vizenor, recalling the time she and Bellecourt protested together on the White Earth Indian Reservation more than a decade ago.

"Vernon was a gifted orator and he always spoke from a justice platform," said Vizenor, who last spoke to Bellecourt in September when the two took part in a tribal leadership conference.

She said Bellecourt had promised to attend a constitutional convention planned for Friday and Saturday at the Shooting Star Casino in Mahnomen, at which members of the White Earth band will discuss possible changes to the constitution that governs Minnesota's Chippewa tribe.


Vizenor said issues include creating a court system independent from tribal councils and changing the requirements for tribal membership.

"He was a staunch supporter of constitutional revision," Vizenor said of Bellecourt. The convention will be dedicated to Bellecourt, who was born on the White Earth reservation in 1931, she said.

Speaking out

Bellecourt moved to Minneapolis at the age of 16.

He became active in the American Indian Movement shortly after the organization was formed by his brother, Clyde Bellecourt, and others in 1968.

Vernon Bellecourt served as a spokesman during the AIM takeover of the town of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1973 and later took part in efforts to free AIM activist Leonard Peltier, who was convicted in the killing of two FBI agents at Pine Ridge in 1975.

In recent years, Bellecourt spoke out strongly against the use of American Indian nicknames for sports teams.

Although Bellecourt was viewed by some as a militant, he was not a violent person, Vizenor said.


"He was a kind person. He was very, very diplomatic. But when it came to justice issues, he was fearless. He spoke the words that needed to be spoken," Vizenor said.

Family matters

Funeral services are planned today for Bellecourt, who will be buried in a family graveyard on the reservation, said his eldest daughter, Denise Levy, who attended a wake Tuesday night in the Circle of Life School in White Earth.

"We shared our dad with the world for 50 years and now we're bringing him home," Levy said.

Bellecourt's eldest son, Marcus Bellecourt, watched a slide show of his father through tears.

"He was a giant in the American Indian movement and he was a giant to me when he taught me how to ride a bike," Bellecourt said of his father.

A wake held Monday in Minneapolis drew several hundred people, some of whom waited hours in the rain to get inside, said Heidi Grika, a niece of Vernon Bellecourt.

She said her uncle stressed many times the importance of being good stewards of the earth and it is a message, she said, that is more true today than ever.


"The world is becoming a smaller place and we should all be watching out for our neighbors, not just our immediate neighbors, but everyone all over the world," Grika said.

Celebrity status

Actor Marlon Brando, who used his stardom to support the cause of American Indians, crossed paths with Bellecourt in 1978 when Bellecourt and other AIM activists were taking part in the Longest Walk, a march that ended in Washington, D.C.

In an interview with The Forum in 2004, the year Brando died, Bellecourt recalled how the actor stepped off a street curb and joined the marchers.

Afterward, Brando invited Bellecourt and others to his hotel, where he ordered room service for his guests and called The Washington Post. When a reporter showed up, the actor declined to talk and instead had the reporter interview the activists.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555. Reporter Patrick Springer contributed to this report. Bellecourt remembered as diplomat for justice Dave Olson 20071017

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