Bury My Heart

For years it has been whispered that the 1976 slaying of American Indian Movement activist Anna Mae Aquash was an inside job. Now a new rash of accusations aims squarely at local heroes Clyde and Vernon Bellecourt.

Not that there would have been much chance of finding any. Historically the largest and poorest of northern Minnesota's Ojibwe bands, White Earth back then had a 95 percent unemployment rate. The Bellecourts lived in a cramped government-built home, squeaking by on Charles's disability and whatever food could be wrested from the forests and waters. Angeline was a product of one of the notorious government boarding schools, where, according to Clyde, "every time they caught her speaking Indian they actually tied sacks of marbles to her knees, gave her a bar of soap and a rag, and made her scrub floors."

Young Clyde's experience in public school wasn't quite as harsh. But from an early age he was openly defiant, questioning the value of paying daily homage to George Washington--"Boy George," as he now calls him. "Here's this man, wearing high-heeled shoes and little silk stockings, with a ruffled shirt and a blond wig and rouge on his cheeks," Bellecourt says. "They would tell us he's the father of the country. Well, he didn't look like my father or my grandfather."

At age nine Bellecourt was sent to a Benedictine mission school on the reservation. The strict discipline didn't sit well with him, and he became a chronic truant. In short order he was shipped off to a military-style reformatory in Red Wing. He spent three years there--the first of many stints in institutions that would shape his character and, by extension, that of the American Indian Movement.

When Bellecourt was 16 his family moved to the Twin Cities. After World War II, the federal government encouraged the migration of Indian people from rural reservations to urban areas, a policy designed to encourage assimilation and open up more reservation land to non-Indians.

Bellecourt found it difficult to adjust to the city. He tried his hand as a professional boxer (compiling a 2-1 record as a light heavyweight), but continued to get in trouble with the law. When he was 14, his brother Vernon, then 19, was sent to prison in St. Cloud for the armed robbery of a St. Paul bar. Over the years that followed, Clyde was arrested for a succession of offenses--including burglary and robbery--that ultimately landed him in the big house at Stillwater.

It was there, Bellecourt says, that he learned from a fellow inmate about Indian history, the broken treaties and stolen land. He also began to explore native spirituality in pipe and sweat-lodge ceremonies. "People always say that the American Indian Movement started in 1968," Bellecourt says. "But to me it started in the hole at Stillwater in '62."

Paroled by his late twenties, Bellecourt used his prison training as a steam-plant engineer to land a job with Northern States Power. But he remembered the lessons from Stillwater. In 1968, he conducted a series of meetings with like-minded Indians, and then called for a summit in an abandoned storefront on the north side. Concerned Indian Americans (a name dropped subsequently because of the "CIA" acronym) styled itself after the Black Panthers--a radical alternative to mainstream civil-rights organizations that took its cause straight to the streets.

Rechristened AIM, Bellecourt's group started a neighborhood patrol and established a court-monitoring project that led to the founding of the Legal Rights Center. "Back then, there were only two Indian organizations in town, and they weren't concerned about police brutality and racism," Bellecourt says. "So we became that voice." Also part of the organization was Dennis Banks, a Leech Lake Ojibwe who, like Bellecourt, had run into trouble with the law before landing a professional job as a recruiter for Honeywell.

When Russell Means joined AIM in 1969, he was a part-time accountant and former dance instructor living in Cleveland. Born on Pine Ridge, he'd grown up in California, then bounced around the country before gravitating toward activism. By the time he attended his first AIM gathering, he knew he'd found his place--an organization populated by uncompromising, tough guys just like him. Despite the bitter schism between them, Means credits Bellecourt with infusing the movement with its core credo. "He wasn't afraid of the police and he wasn't afraid of jail," Means recalls. "He was such a confrontational person, such a righteous person. I think Clyde's personality gave that aura of righteousness to the American Indian Movement and we took that. We went with that and we became enormously successful."

 

Media-savvy and forceful action soon catapulted AIM out of Minneapolis and into the national limelight. The group staged mass demonstrations at courthouses, embarked on cross-country caravans, even occupied--and then trashed--the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) building in Washington, D.C. Then, in 1973, AIM led a dramatic occupation of the hamlet of Wounded Knee on Pine Ridge. The action drew unprecedented attention to reservation poverty and became a rallying point for Indians across the country. Even among AIM's critics, Wounded Knee is regarded as a transforming episode in Indian activism, a ballsy stare-down with the federal government that provided a crucial spark to the revival of native pride, culture and religion.

But Wounded Knee shaped AIM's destiny both for good and ill. By the end of the 71-day standoff two protesters had died in firefights, and all those involved in the siege, some 137 people in all, were arrested and prosecuted. Though nearly all the cases ended in acquittal, the proceedings--including the high-profile trial of Banks and Means--put AIM on the defensive and altered the culture of the movement.

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