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Clyde Bellecourt, A Leader In Native Americans' Civil Rights Struggle, Has Died At Age 85

Bellecourt cofounded the American Indian Movement, which started in 1968 as a Minneapolis organization that fought against police brutality and discrimination against Native Americans.

Posted on January 11, 2022, at 8:47 p.m. ET

Jerry Holt/Star Tribune via Getty Images

Clyde Bellecourt in 2017

Clyde Bellecourt, a longtime leader in Native Americans' fight for civil rights, died Tuesday from cancer, his wife told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He was 85.

In 1968, Bellecourt helped found the American Indian Movement, which began as a local group in Minneapolis fighting against police brutality and discrimination against Native Americans. The AIM did not immediately respond to BuzzFeed News, but confirmed his death to the Associated Press.

"He loved the Native people," his wife Peggy Bellecourt told the Star Tribune. "He loved being out there, trying to help improve conditions."

The organization widened its scope to take on national issues and went on to lead major protests nationwide in the 1970s, including a march to Washington, DC, known as the Trail of Broken Treaties. The demonstration was aimed at highlighting the federal government's failure to fulfill treaty obligations.

In 1973, AIM led a 71-day occupation of the town of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to protest the US and tribal governments. The occupation turned violent and two people were killed.

Jim Wells / AP

Bellecourt speaks at a press conference in New York on April 18, 1973, after returning from the Wounded Knee occupation.

Bellecourt was also known for protesting major professional sports teams for using Native Americans as their mascots and in their names.

"America is scholastically retarded about Indian culture and history and how the West was really won," Bellecourt said in 1991 during a protest at an Atlanta Braves game. "It is pure ignorance."

He continued to lead AIM until 2020, when he stepped aside due to health issues, according to Indian Country Today.

Craig Lassig / AFP via Getty Images

Clyde Bellecourt speaks with former South African president Nelson Mandela in Minneapolis in November 2000.

Born on the White Earth Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota, Bellecourt's Ojibwe name was Nee-gon-we-way-we-dun, which means “Thunder Before the Storm.” He was the only remaining living founder of the AIM, the organization's current co-director Lisa Bellanger told the Associated Press.

"Clyde Bellecourt sparked a movement in Minneapolis that spread worldwide," Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said on Twitter. "His fight for justice and fairness leaves behind a powerful legacy that will continue to inspire people across our state and nation for generations to come."

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.