This was an especially difficult morning for Clyde Bellecourt.
First, Bellecourt learned that his "brother," Russell Means, had
died, at the age of 72, at his ranch on the Pine Ridge Reservation
in South Dakota.
One of the former leaders of the Minneapolis-based American
Indian Movement, Means was surrounded by traditional Oglala Sioux
spiritual leaders who told him Sunday night that "the spirit was
coming to get him."
Means, Bellecourt says, was at peace, ready to move on.
But shortly after learning of Means' death, Bellecourt received a
call from CBS, which added to his sense of loss.
"They just wanted me to say controversial things about Russell,"
Bellecourt said. "They kept asking about Wounded Knee. It was clear
that when they think of Russell, they think of Indians with rifles
at Wounded Knee."
Confrontation only small part of legacy
Confrontation, Bellecourt said, was important to the revival of
American Indian pride, but it should only be a small part of the
legacy of people such as Means.
"The whole story and the positive things that have happened don't
get reported by the mainstream media," said the 75-year-old
Bellecourt, who remains active in Indian affairs in Minneapolis.
Those positive things that grew out of the American Indian
In Bellecourt's view, they include a long list of things: Indian
treaty rights, casinos on reservations, rejection of the whites'
"organized religion" and a return to traditional spiritual
ceremonies, colleges and junior colleges on reservations across the
country, recognition of indigenous people around the globe by the
There also are small but potent organizations, such as the
American Indian Opportunities Center in Minneapolis. That
organization, with roots in AIM, has health and dental clinics on
Franklin Avenue and also trains American Indians to work in health
The Legal Rights Center in south Minneapolis also has AIM roots,
Bellecourt said. That organization has not only helped hold Indian
families together but also has been a springboard for U.S. District
Court Judge Michael Davis and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, who began
their careers there and now have a deeper understanding of Indian
issues than most in public life.
Before AIM, none of this existed for American Indians, Bellecourt
Means was not among the small group of AIM founders in 1968. At
the time of the founding, Means was in Cleveland, running a
government-sponsored program that was set up to help Indians adapt
to urban life.
Bellecourt was the first AIM leader, elected after giving a fiery
speech calling on a small group of Indians about the need for
"confrontation politics. . . [to] stand up against organized
religion, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and public education.''
AIM first began to make a ripple shortly after its formation,
forming patrols on Franklin Avenue, to protect Indians from all
forms of violence, including police brutality.
Within two years, Means had come aboard.
'A warrior in every sense of word'
"He was a real warrior in every sense of the word," Bellecourt
said. "He was charismatic, not afraid to put his life on the line."
Means helped lead a number of confrontations that created
national headlines, culminating with the 71-day takeover of Wounded
Knee in 1973. …