Thursday, October 27, 2016

Clyde Bellecourt Tells His Story as Founder of the American Indian Movement

After reading The Apache Wars and The Sand Creek Massacre I was ripe to learn about the Native American civil rights movement that occured while I was in my late teens and early twenties. As if on cue, Edelwiss offered The Thunder Before the Storm, The Autobiography of Clyde Bellencourt, the founder of the American Indian Movement.


"We started a movement to take back everything that belonged to us: our spirituality, our hunting and fishing rights, our water rights, our gold and minerals, our sacred rites--and our children."

Starting with his childhood on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, Clyde Bellecourt (his colonial name; The Thunder Before the Storm, Neegonnwayweedun, is his Ojibwe name) relates a grim story. Clyde grew up hearing his father's stories of being taken from his family to be educated in a boarding school so hateful that he enlisted during WWI. Later he discovered the origin of his mother's limp: at boarding school her punishment for speaking her native language was to scrub floors with bags of marbles tied to her knees.

Clyde grew up without knowledge of his native culture, spiritual traditions, or language, which had been violently supressed for generations by a Eurocentric majority culture. He was deemed "incorrigable," a truant and runaway, resistant to the mission school authority, repeatedly in juvenile detention, and in solitary confinement in prison. His life mirrored that of many Natives on the reservations, with high rates of alcoholism and drug abuse resulted in a typical lifespan of 44 years.

While in prison Clyde became part of an Indian cultural program and an Indian Folklore Group. He learned his native language, ceremonies, prayer songs, and history.

"I was typical of the other Indians there: spiritually and emotionally bankrupt."

It was the beginning of Bellecourt's spiritual revival that lead him to becoming an activist, using "confrontaion politics" to demand the end of discrimination on the local and national level. European education, organized religion, and the Bureaus of Indian Affairs were the institutions that needed to change. He became the leader of the American Indian Movement (AIM). The goals included addressing immediate concerns in housing, youth, employment, education, communication, and citizenship. The long range goals included unification of the Indian people, participation in local affairs, and fostering economic equality. Bellecourt brought back the Sun Dance which had been banned.

AIM found friends in civil rights workers including Coretta Scott King, religious leaders such as Dr. Paul Boe of the America Lutheran Church, and local political leaders along the way, but they were also targeted as 'terrorists' by local police, the FBI, and the American government. AIM was besieged, spys infiltrated the group, including assasins, and members were murdered.

Like many visionary leaders, Bellecourt is not a paragon of perfection; he struggled with demons-- alcohol, drugs, and infidelity; he was imprisoned on drug related charges; and he survived assasination attempts.

I was glad to read about Bellecourt's work to remove racism from American sports, particularly the National Football League and the Washington Redskins name. It helped me to understand the associations of this kind of branding from the Native American viewpoint. "Redskin" was used to "denigrate and dehumanize" the natives, who believe the term refers to the bloody scalps taken by  bounty hunters. The "tomahawk chop" to Native Americans is a reminder of the weapons used to scalp their people.

I consider how I grew up with cowboy and Indian TV westerns and movies, the cliches and easy stereotypes, racism in the form of entertainment. We kids didn't know about the drive to exterminate First Peoples, the lies and broken treaties, and the continued supression of Native culture that was still ongoing. I had a cowboy hat and a holster, squinting my eyes as if always looking into the sun, a little blond-haired girl imitating what she saw on tv.

At college a friend told me about going to Pow Wows and of his interest in the Indian ways. It just seemed like a fad. And while I was working my husband through school, barely in my twenties, Wounded Knee seemed far away and alien.

I have been spending a great deal of time, now in my 'golden years', making up for the ignorance of my youth. It is frustrating to know that the entertainment industry still forms most of young people's historical knowledge. I know--the goal of public education is to make good citizens, and somehow that means supporting the image that America was always right. But I think that making good citizens should include the understanding that America has committed heinous crimes, but that we are continually learning to see the error of our past choices. Right now I am afraid that we may not be learning, as a culture, to recall history and resist making the same mistakes.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through Edelweiss in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

The Thunder Before the Storm: The Autobiography of Clyde Bellecourt as told to Jon Lurie
MNHS Press
Publication Novemeber 15, 2016
$27.95 hard cover
ISBN: 9781681340197