MINNEAPOLIS – Vernon Bellecourt, a longtime leader of the American Indian Movement who fought against the use of American Indian nicknames for sports teams, has died, his brother said. He was 75.
Bellecourt died Saturday at Abbott Northwestern Hospital of complications of pneumonia, according to Clyde Bellecourt, a founding member of the militant American Indian rights group.
Just before he was put on the respirator, Vernon Bellecourt joked that the CIA had finally gotten him, his brother said.
"He was willing to put his butt on the line to draw attention to racism in sports," his brother said.
Vernon Bellecourt — whose Objibwe name WaBun-Inini means Man of Dawn — was a member of Minnesota's White Earth band and was an international spokesman for the AIM Grand Governing Council based in Minneapolis.
Clyde Bellecourt helped found AIM as a militant group in 1968 and Vernon Bellecourt soon became involved, taking part in the 1973 occupation of the town of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. He was present only briefly during the 71-day standoff with federal agents, serving mostly as a spokesman and fundraiser, Clyde Bellecourt said.
He was active in the campaign to free AIM activist Leonard Peltier, who was convicted of killing two FBI agents during a shootout in 1975 on the Pine Ridge reservation.
He was also involved as a negotiator in AIM's 1972 occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington as part of the Trail of Broken Treaties caravan.
In recent years, Bellecourt had been active in the fight against American Indian nicknames for sports teams as president of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media.
He was arrested in Cleveland during the 1997 World Series and again in 1998 during protests against the Cleveland Indians' mascot, Chief Wahoo. Charges were dropped the first time and he was never charged in the second case.
After Wounded Knee, Vernon Bellecourt became a leader of AIM's work abroad, meeting with presidents such as Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, his brother said. He said they plan to list them as honorary pallbearers.
Clyde Bellecourt said his brother had been in Venezuela about four weeks ago to meet with President Hugo Chavez to discuss Chavez's program for providing heating assistance to American Indian tribes. He fell ill around the time of his return, Clyde Bellecourt said.