Vernon Bellecourt: A Life of Struggle for Indian Rights

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“Our detractors always say, ‘We are honoring you,’ It’s not
an honor. In whose honor? We have to ask. Beginning with
the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, about 16 million of us
were wiped out, including whole villages in Washington,
where native girls were sold on the auction block as sex
slaves in mining towns, and young boys were made slaves
on ranches.”
“The name of your football team has got to change! We
don’t like your chicken feathers, your paint, your cheap
Hollywood chants.”
—Vernon Bellecourt
Vernon Bellecourt (WaBun-Inini), an Ojibwa and
spokesperson for the American Indian Movement (AIM)
died on October 13 from complications of pneumonia. He
was born on the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota
in 1931. His father was disabled from exposure to
mustard gas in World War I, leaving his mother to raise
their 12 children on government benefits in a home with
no running water or electricity. As a consequence, the
young boy grew up on the reservation amidst abject poverty
and, like so many indigenous children of his time, he
suffered the abuses of boarding school education.
In response to the injustice of his early years, Bellecourt
channeled his rage and fury into a life shaped by
longstanding campaigns for the human rights of indigenous
peoples. Often considered a controversial figure
during his lifetime, he struggled for the restoration of
Indian lands and the preservation of indigenous cultures
and languages, as well as the respect and human dignity
of native people.
Bellecourt first gained public notice attention in 1972
when AIM members occupied the offices of the Bureau of
Indian Affairs in Washington D.C., in protest of the years
of political and social injustices managed by the BIA. Later,
he worked to attain international recognition for Indian
nations and their treaties, often meeting with controversial
world figures including Yasir Arafat, who fought for rights
to Palestinian lands and political self-determination. Most
recently, he had met with President Hugo Chavez of
Venezuela. He was a special representative of the International
Indian Treaty Council and in 1974 helped organize
the first international conference of Indigenous Peoples
under United Nations auspices to proclaim their rights.
Most notably in our community, Bellecourt was known
as an ardent opponent of the use of Indian mascots and his
unceasing supported for the efforts of Charleen Teters and
others on the campus and community, who have worked
tirelessly to end the “Chief Illiniwek” compulsion at UIUC.
As president of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports
and Media, he also protested fiercely against teams with
names like the Indians, the Redskins, or the Chiefs. Bellecourt
was during the 1997 World Series and again in 1998
for burning an effigy of the Cleveland Indians’ mascot,
“Chief Wahoo” and his Super Bowl protest of the Washington
Bellecourt argued passionately that Indian mascots
objectified American Indians by perpetuating stereotypes,
which allowed institutions to gloss over the true histories,
social problems, and political demands of Indigenous Peoples
in this country. In 2001, Bellecourt’s efforts gained
momentum when the United States Commission on Civil
Rights issued a statement that criticized the use of Indian
mascots and nicknames by non-Indian schools, calling
them “insensitive in light of the long history of forced
assimilation that American Indian people have endured in
this country.”
Over the years, Bellecourt’s unrelenting efforts were
rewarded by the steady decline of the use of Indian mascots
and Indian team names by colleges and universities
across the nation. In 2005, the National Collegiate Athletic
Association (NCAA) barred the use of Indian mascots by
college and university teams. It was the NCAA groundbreaking
decision that has provided the most positive
leverage to advocates of indigenous rights in higher education,
including the efforts that led to the University of Illinois
Board of Trustees decision to retire the “Chief Illiniwek”
this year.
Among the many other causes he championed, Bellecourt
was also a tireless leader in the campaign to release
AIM activist Leonard Peltier, who was wrongly convicted
of killing two FBI agents during a 1975 shootout on the
Pine Ridge reservation. Peltier, has spent more than 30
years in jail. In his book, Prison Writings: My Life is my
Sun Dance, Leonard Peltier wrote of Bellecourt “an imperfect
man, yet with vision and bravery and fiery words, he
gave voice to a whole generation of Indian activists.”

About Antonia Darder

Antonia Darder is a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She is a longtime Puerto Rican activist-scholar involved in issue's relating to education, language, immigrant workers, and women's rights.
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