Vernon Bellecourt, October 17, 1931 - October 13, 2007
On December 15, 1966 Walt Disney died of acute circulatory collapse, caused by lung cancer, at age 65. Outside hanging on the wall in the Intensive Care Unit at Abbott Northwestern Hospital where Vernon Bellecourt was fighting for his life is a print of a lone microphone spotlighted, and the cartoon characters standing aside that Disney created, hanging their heads. I stood staring at the print for minutes at a time while the doctors and nurses worked on Vernon day after day. I was horrified that the print might reflect the end result here.
On a beautiful fall day in Minneapolis, it did.
The American Indian Movement Website and office received hundreds of emails and phone messages from the four corners of the world after the news spread about Vernon's passing into spirit. Tears flowed and disbelief prevailed.
Vernon was so filled up with life and positive energy, and he infected everybody around him with it. The hard reality that Vernon's life was over affected everyone around him, and everyone who knew him with profound sadness. Vernon was hardly ever sad except for when he lost family members, and his dear friends, Jerry Roy, Dick LaGarde, and Kwame Ture.
Vernon's agenda was always full speed ahead on the issue of the day, and his unbending will in getting the job done was infamous. You had to understand that in order to live around, and live with Vernon. His passion was justice for Indian people everywhere, period. That passion took him all over the world, and his last trip took him to Venezuela. He came home full of happiness after meeting people from the Wayuu Tribe there, and other Indigenous people throughout South America. He was not well, but he was happy. He was worried too because there were a lot of issues to deal with as usual. He worked until I finally took his cell phone away from him in the hospital so he could rest.
The National Coalition on Racism in Sports in Media was organized to combat racism. Vernon was at the head of the helm because he, like so many Indian people, experienced racism very early in life. Vernon also worked for his people in White Earth, and he never forgot his roots. His work took him across Canada, throughout the U.S., into Central America, and South America. He traveled to Africa, Europe, Aotearora (New Zealand), and to the islands, Cuba, the Carribean, and so on. He raised issues, consciousness, and hell.
Vern was selfless and candor. The love of family was solid. He would have given them the world if he could. It was kind of hard to remember his laughter last week, but now I do. His laughter was infectious too, and his silly jokes. For 27 and a half years I laughed with him, worked with him, and lived with him. I mean really lived with him.
He was always saying, he would not live to see 80. He did live to see some change as a result of the American Indian Movement and the International Indian Treaty Council. He will also live on through the stories that we all have like, remember the time when Vern had the idea to take his AIMster friends into the heart of "redneck" territory to a farmhouse pancake breakfast...
Vernon had a mountain of friends, and they came to support him on his final journey. I am eternally grateful for all of you, and deeply thank you for everything. I was continually amazed how easy it was for him to make friends, and converse with strangers. He gave a little of himself to everyone he met.
He would hate that he caused so many tears, and made people so sad. He would prefer that you raise a little hell like he did.
I wish to offer my deepest condolences to the family of Vernon Bellecourt. I am saddened and with grief as I recall my friendship with Vernon Bellecourt since the fall of 1970 when I first met Vernon in Denver. I had already made my spiritual pilgrimage to Alcatraz Island that spring.
He took me and many others under his wing and became a mentor for the young American Indians. I joined the American Indian Movement and I traveled with the Denver American Indian Movement chapter for the next three years (1970-1974) including the campaigns at Ignacio, Colorado; Omaha, Nebraska; Raymond Yellow Thunder in Gordon, Nebraska; Cass Lake, Minnesota; Alliance, Nebraska; Flagstaff, Arizona; Gallup, New Mexico; Trail of Broken Treaties Caravan & the BIA Takeover in Washington, D.C.; Wounded Knee, South Dakota; and the First International Indian Treaty Council gathering in Mobridge, South Dakota.
He was a fearless leader and was a very eloquent and articulate speaker whose words inspired a generation. He was the founder of the Denver chapter of the American Indian Movement, and he was one of the founders of the International Indian Treaty Council. He became a staunch advocate and speaker for the Indigenous Peoples and became a world figure and traveled throughout the world.
He strongly believed in the spiritual sovereignty of the American Indian. He supported our struggle at Big Mountain with his presence at the Sun Dance. He took us with him from the Navajo Reservation and other Indian reservations throughout the country, and he helped bring the Indian Nations into the world arena. He became one of the leaders who traveled to the United Nations in Geneva.
He took on the corporate world of major league baseball teams such as the Atlanta Braves and the Cleveland Indians and the national football league teams of the Washington Redskins and the Kansas City Chiefs because of the dehumanizing racist cartoon caricatures that portrayed the American Indian as mascots.
We were awarded and a recipient of the City of Phoenix, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Human Rights Award in January 16, 1993, which was the first time the state of Arizona recognized the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday.
We both worked on the religious freedom and traditional worship for Native prisoners in the state prisons and federal penitentiaries, and we both kept Leonard Peltier in the forefront for the religious freedom struggle.
This was my relationship with a great warrior, human being and a passionate advocate for his peoples.
My deepest condolences to the family and relatives of Vernon Bellecourt. We share your sorrow and grief.
Farewell my friend and comrade in the struggle. It was my pleasure and honor to have rode with you.
Lenny Foster (Dine’)
Wounded Knee vet
International Indian Treaty Council