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I don’t know about you, but I have run into more versions of the origination of AIM (American Indian Movement) than there are fluffys on a ready-to-seed dandelion!  As far as I am concerned what follows is not another version but THE happenstance of events.


The photo of Vernon Bellacourt is attributed to UPI/Bettmann Newsphotos.


Vernon Bellacourt, Chippewa

    I had seven sisters and four brothers. First I went to a public school, and it became a parochial school open to all the kids in the community. I went there until the eighth grade, to junior hight school for one year and quit. Couldn't handle the racist attitudes, the abuse I got, so I dropped out in the ninth grade…

    I lived on the reservation until I was fifteen. I recognized despair was setting in, because I was caught up in poverty in a large family with never quite enough food on the table. Leaving the reservation and going into the city was the start of becoming Anglo-oriented…

    When I was about twenty years old, I was an armed robber, sort of a Robin Hood type. It was my way of getting back at the system for ripping us off. This was in Minnesota. I ended up in prison doing a forty-year sentence. They have what they call a youth program; if you don't commit any more crimes after they release you, they wipe your record clean. But I was bitter. When they let me out I did it again, and I got caught. Then I had forty years to do plus another five. I did three and a half years, finally won a discharge on the forty-year sentence and got paroled on the five. Then I knew I could never do that again - not especially because I thought I was wrong, but because I didn't want to go to jail anymore. In prison they taught me how to be a barber, and after I came out, I ended up owning a beauty salon. From that I went into the import business, gift items and such…

    My brother Clyde was doing a tremendous amount of time in Stillwater State Prison in Minnesota, and he just gave up in despair and wouldn't eat. He went on a hunger strike and was going to stay on it until he died. He met a young Ojibwa brother who was from a medicine family, a family of spiritual leaders, and this young man was also a spiritual leader.

    This young medicine man, Eddie Benton, was sort of a trusty, and he'd come by my brother's cell and try to talk to him and ask him to eat. But Clyde wouldn't eat. Finally Eddie started throwing candy bars in there, but they just piled up, and my brother couldn't touch them. Then one day he started quoting literature, telling about the Ojibwas and our proud heritage. And finally one day, I guess just out of boredom, my brother picked up a piece of this literature and started reading about us. And he finally recognized he wasn't the dirty Indian he'd been told he was by White students at school…

    So anyway, Clyde started reading this literature and it brought him back to life and gave him renewed strength and dignity. He started eating and started to get involved. He and Eddie Benton started an Indian awareness program in the prison and were instrumental in keeping our your Indian men out of jail once they got out.

    When Clyde got out of prison early in 1968, he went to work for a power company. He had one of the first organizational meetings, in mid-1968, with a group of people in Minneapolis, in the Indian ghetto community. Everything was deteriorating rather than getting better. There were police harassment and brutality, because of a complete breakdown of police-community relations.

     At the first meeting Clyde attended, they voted him the national director. There were twenty-seven or twenty-eight other Indian organizations in the Minneapolis community. Most of them were related to various churches - missionary work in disguise. For the most part, the boards of these organizations were White dominated. White do-gooders as consultants and advisers controlled them.

     So the first AIM was formed in Minneapolis, as a non-profit corporation with an all-Indian board and staff. They were going to call the organization The Concerned Indian Americans, CIA. The couldn't use that! So a couple of older, respected women said, "Well, you keep saying that you 'aim' to do this, you 'aim' to do that. Why don't you call it AIM, the American Indian Movement?" That's how we got our name.

    I watched what they were doing, and I could see the pride in these young men and women. A new dignity, a new awareness, a new power, a new strength. Then I looked at myself. I was making money and living in White suburbia… So I went up to Minnesota, and for about a week I visited with my brother and other people in the movement - Russell Means, Dennis Banks and some of the founders. Finally I got so involved I started letting my hair grow long, and I stopped wearing a tie and started to sort of de-program myself, to become just a simple person, a simple man. More humble, I saw in that something I could identify with.

    When AIM was forming, one of the first things they zeroed in on was police-community relations. Young men and women in the community formed the AIM Patrol. They had red jackets with thunderbird emblems on the backs.

     Sometimes they appointed somebody who had a bad drinking problem; one of the qualifications, of course, was being sober. So it was really an alcoholic rehabilitation program at the same time…

    They got a small grant from the Urban League of Minneapolis to put two-way radio in their cars and to get tape recorders and cameras. They would listen to the police calls, and when they heard there was going to be an arrest or that police were being dispatched to a certain community or bar, they'd show up with cameras and take pictures of the police using more than normal restraint on the people.

    They got evidence of beatings and ripping people around with handcuffs too tight, ripping their wrists. It was very vicious. This sometimes becomes a way of life for the police. They just fall into it. They think that's the way Indians have to be treated. So AIM would show up and have attorneys ready. Often they would beat the police back to the station. They would have a bondsman there, and they'd start filing law suits against the police department.

    Members recognized there was something missing from the movement. They heard about a medicine man in South Dakota, a holy man, a spirit leader. Now, the spirituality of Indian people has always been strong and has remained intact in some areas of South Dakota. They heard about Leonard Crow Dog, a medicine man who was maybe twenty-five. They were curious, and they went to visit him and his dad…. Well, they went there for advice, and one of the first questions they asked was, "What is an Indian?" They wanted to redefine what they were. And they were told that to be an Indian is to be spiritual…. We have the spirituality, yet we are warriors. We'll stand up and fight for our people. We haven't had that for many years. The warrior class of this century is bound by the bond of the drum… That circle around the drum brings us together. We can have two or three hundred people around that drum, all from different tribes, all singing the same song. We put out a bumper sticker, "AIM for Sovereignty."

    Most of our people didn't even know what the word meant. Now they know.

AIM Leader Vernon Bellecourt Dies at 75

Below are Links to the Other Hear the Voices Articles
[ Voices Contents Page ] [ Voices-The Birth of AIM ] [ Voices-The Spider's Web ]
[ Voices-White Rabbit Got Lotsa Everything ] [ Voices-Going Back ]
[ Voices-Our Stock of Food and Clothes ] [ Voices-The Dead Did Not Return ]
[ New Voice-The Illusion of Freedom

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