Tim Giago: Remembering Vernon Bellecourt

My receptionist, Christy Tibbitts, stuck her head in the door of my office at the Lakota Times weekly newspaper several years ago and said, “There’s a Vernon Bellecourt on the line.”

Whoa! Vernon Bellecourt? Bellecourt was one of the spokesmen and founders of the American Indian Movement, and as the editor and publisher of the Lakota Times; I had my share of confrontations with AIM. I had accused them of shooting out the windows of my newspaper building and of attacking it with firebombs just before Christmas in 1981.

With just a little bit of trepidation I answered the phone. “Hey Tim, this is Vernon Bellecourt. I know you’re probably surprised, but I just read one of your articles in the St. Paul Pioneer Press about your anger at using Indians as mascots. I just wanted to tell you that you are right on and I would like to meet with you about this,” he said.

In 1992, the week the Washington professional football team met the Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl in Minneapolis, an article by me about the use of Indians as mascots appeared in Newsweek Magazine. Some enterprising editor put the headline on it that read, “I hope the Redskins lose.” Nowhere in the article did I say, “I hope the Redskins lose,” and that brought the wrath of every Redskin fan in the country down on my head. I traveled to Minneapolis that week to cover the protest and had my first meeting with Vernon Bellecourt.

We had a cup of coffee a day or two before the Super Bowl and he told me that there would be a protest by several hundred Indians at the stadium. We kicked around ideas for future articles and then I had to fly back to South Dakota because I was on a deadline.

Bellecourt impressed me in that he was willing to reach across the table and shake hands with me even though many of his cohorts looked at me as a political enemy. I had no qualms about shaking his hand because I was there as a newspaperman and not as a politician.

The last time I saw Vernon was at a restaurant in New York City. I had dinner with him and another well-known mascot protestor, Charlene Teters. The restaurant was on the top floor of a building that rotated so that we could see different parts of the New York skyline. After dinner Bellecourt reached into his pocket and pulled out two cigars. He said, “I got these directly from Fidel Castro when I was visiting Cuba last month.” I must admit that it was one of the best cigars I had ever smoked.

From the day of our first phone visit Bellecourt kept me abreast of the different protests around the country that his organization, The National Coalition on Racism in Sports & Media, would be conducting. The previous year I had covered the protest at the University of Illinois and Michael Haney, Charlene Teters, and Vernon were there. Haney, an Oklahoma Seminole Indian, passed away a few years ago.

I was on my way from Albuquerque to Rapid City, SD last week when Teters called me on my cell phone to inform me that Vernon was critically ill. By the time I got to Rapid City he had died. His funeral was held on his home reservation of White Earth in Minnesota last week.

Bellecourt’s death brought up a lot of the things that had been a part of the history of the American Indian Movement. There was talk of his involvement in the death of Anna Mae Pictou Aquash in the 1970s and of other things that happened in the heydays of AIM. There is no proof of this allegation.

When told about the death of Bellecourt, former AIM leader Russell Means said he was sad to hear about his death because, “I wanted him to live long enough to go to jail for Anna Mae’s death.” Well, all of this should come out at the trial of John “Boy” Graham that should take place in Rapid City in 2008. Arvol Looking Cloud who was convicted in her death and is now serving a life sentence accused Graham of being the triggerman. Perhaps the truth will finally be known.

There were a lot of bad things that happened in the 1970s in the angry early days of AIM. I am sure that many of AIM’s leaders wish that they had done some things differently, but in the long run, they were fighting for the trampled rights of the Indian people and the route they chose was confrontational and often ended up violently.

Before asking me to work with him on the mascot issue Bellecourt shook my hand again and said, “Tim, I know that you and me didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but if you really look at it, we were fighting for the same things, but we were probably coming at it from different directions.”

There is a Lakota tradition that says one should never speak ill of the dead. And I know there will be accusatory words flying around that would disparage Vernon Bellecourt, but I only knew him as a friend and in my prayers I hope that his travels to the Spirit World be filled with wonders.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991 and founder of The Lakota Times and Indian Country Today newspapers. He founded and was the first president of the Native American Journalists Association. He can be reached at najournalist@msn.com.

More Tim Giago:
Tim Giago: American Indians are not mascots (10/15)
Tim Giago: Stop trying to rename 'Indians' (10/8)
Tim Giago: The origins of Native American Day (10/1)
Tim Giago: Growing up in Kyle, Pine Ridge Reservation (9/24)
Tim Giago: Healing the wounds that haunt Pine Ridge (9/17)
Tim Giago: Closing a dark chapter at Pine Ridge (9/10)
Tim Giago: AIM responsible for Anna Mae's death (9/4)
Tim Giago: 'Commod bods' going out of fashion (8/27)
Tim Giago: Tribes should include all their citizens (8/20)
Tim Giago: Hollywood dashes hopes of 'Wounded Knee' (8/6)
Tim Giago: Honeymoon is over for California tribes (7/30)
Tim Giago: Modern Indian heroes compiled in book (7/23)
Tim Giago: Media errors in 'State of Native Nations' (7/9)
Tim Giago: Columnist disparages Native people (7/2)
Tim Giago: Pine Ridge still needs a hand up (6/25)
Tim Giago: The great horse of the Pawnee Nation (6/18)
Tim Giago: Indians still the most misunderstood (6/11)
Tim Giago: The theft of the sacred Black Hills (6/4)
Tim Giago: Clear and present danger to sovereignty (5/28)
Tim Giago: Rich tribes still not helping poor ones (5/21)
Tim Giago: Standing ground against 'Dropout Nation' (5/14)
Tim Giago: Indian prophecies and medicine (5/7)
Tim Giago: Help the poorest county in America (4/30)
Tim Giago: Honoring those who died at Washita (4/23)
Tim Giago: Mainstream media ignores the real issues (4/16)
Tim Giago: Racism and hypocrisy over Imus (4/11)
Tim Giago: Kill the Indian and save the child (4/9)
Tim Giago: The dark legacy of boarding schools (4/2)
Tim Giago: Tribes continue to surrender sovereignty (3/26)
Tim Giago: Venezuela steps up for Indian nations (3/19)
Tim Giago: Cherokee Nation votes out Freedmen (3/12)
Tim Giago: Oglala Lakota Tribe still struggling (3/5)
Tim Giago: A view from South Dakota, the 'red' state (2/26)
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Giago discusses 'dark legacy' of boarding schools (2/5)
Tim Giago: Writing helped heal wounds of abuse (1/29)
Tim Giago: How many others will die over Iraq? (1/22)
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Tim Giago: Recognize an Indian hero in the new year (1/2)
Tim Giago: Christmas and Lakota traditions (12/25)
Tim Giago: Sen. Johnson never wanted the spotlight (12/18)
Tim Giago: The 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee (12/11)
Tim Giago: R-word just as insulting as the N-word (12/4)
Tim Giago: Mainstream media lacking in accuracy (11/27)
Tim Giago: Thanksgiving - A holiday of the imagination (11/22)
Tim Giago: State stifling growth on reservations (11/20)
Tim Giago: Taking stock of Election Day 2006 (11/13)
Tim Giago: Few roles for Indians in Hollywood (11/6)
Tim Giago: Freedom of the press has a chance (10/31)
Tim Giago: Important election day for South Dakota (10/24)
Tim Giago: White media ignores Indian contributions (10/17)
Tim Giago: Termination a dirty word in Indian Country (10/10)
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Tim Giago: Culturecide started with innocent children (09/19)
Tim Giago: Indian people mark 500 years of terrorism (9/11)
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