American Indian Rights Activist Vernon Bellecourt

Vernon Bellecourt fought for American Indian treaty rights and protested the use of Indian nicknames for sports teams.
Vernon Bellecourt fought for American Indian treaty rights and protested the use of Indian nicknames for sports teams. (2003 Photo By Doug Dreyer -- Associated Press)
By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 15, 2007

Vernon Bellecourt, who fought to restore land and dignity to Native Americans and against the use of Indian nicknames for sports teams as a longtime leader of the American Indian Movement (AIM), died Oct. 13 of complications of pneumonia at a Minneapolis hospital. He was 75.

Since leaving behind careers as a hair stylist and real estate agent and joining his brother in AIM in the 1970s, Mr. Bellecourt had been in the forefront of the movement to ensure that treaties between Native American tribes and the U.S. government would be fulfilled. He was president of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media and principal spokesman for AIM.

He was involved in numerous demonstrations to bring attention to his causes, including the 1972 occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington and the 1992 Super Bowl rally to protest the name of Washington's football team. He also spoke at colleges and universities around the world about the more than 400 treaties that the group believed the U.S. government was not honoring.

Clyde Bellecourt, a founding member of AIM, said yesterday that his brother had been in Venezuela about four weeks ago to meet with President Hugo Ch¿vez to discuss Ch¿vez's program for providing heating assistance to American Indian tribes. Mr. Bellecourt became ill at the end of that trip.

Mr. Bellecourt spent years trying to get sports teams -- from high school to professional leagues -- to drop their use of American Indian monikers. His group urged the owners of the National Football League's Washington Redskins, Kansas City Chiefs and Major League Baseball's Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians to change their names.

At a 1992 rally before the Super Bowl XXVI game between the Washington Redskins and the Buffalo Bills, Mr. Bellecourt spoke to a crowd of more than 2,000 people and lambasted Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke and NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

"We say to Jack Cooke: This is 1992. The name of your football team has got to be changed," he said. To other teams with Indian nicknames and to their fans, he advised: "No more chicken feathers. . . . No more paint on faces. The chop stops here."

Mr. Bellecourt was arrested in Cleveland during the 1997 World Series and again in 1998 during protests against the Cleveland Indians' mascot, Chief Wahoo. Charges were dropped the first time, and he was not charged in the second case, according to the Associated Press.

He and his group also joined in a legal battle challenging the Washington Redskins' trademarked name. That challenge, brought in 1999 by a group of Native American activists led by District resident Suzan Shown Harjo, was thrown out in 2003 by a federal judge.

Mr. Bellecourt chided other American Indians who supported what he considered the racist and stereotypical names for sports teams.

"Our detractors always say, 'We are honoring you,' '' Mr. Bellecourt told the Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Wash., last year. "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."

Vernon Bellecourt -- whose Ojibwe name, WaBun-Inini, means "Man of Dawn" or "Daybreak" -- was born on the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota. He left home at 15 after finding work in a carnival. He eventually landed in St. Paul, Minn., where he became a cosmetologist and hair stylist.

He continued in that line of work after moving to Denver, and he also sold real estate. His brother quipped that Mr. Bellecourt was selling land while he was trying to reclaim land taken from American Indians years ago.

Mr. Bellecourt, who had joined the militant Indian movement soon after his brother helped found the group in 1968, became a negotiator in AIM's 1972 occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington, which was part of the Trail of Broken Treaties Caravan.

In the 1973 occupation of the town of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, Mr. Bellecourt served as a spokesman for the group in the final days of the 71-day standoff with federal agents. His brother said he also helped raise money for the effort.

Mr. Bellecourt also participated in the campaign to free AIM activist Leonard Peltier, who was convicted of killing two FBI agents during a 1975 shootout on the Pine Ridge reservation.

He was a special representative of the International Indian Treaty Council and helped organize the first treaty conference in 1974. As part of his work, he met with presidents such as Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, his brother said.

Survivors also include his wife, Carol Ann Bellecourt, from whom he was separated; a companion, Janice Denny; and six children.

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