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Clyde Bellecourt, longtime leader in the fight for Native civil rights, dies at 85

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A longtime leader in the fight for Native civil rights died this week. His name was Clyde Bellecourt, and he co-founded the American Indian Movement, or AIM, in Minneapolis back in 1968. He spent his life advocating for legislation to protect Indigenous people.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

In 1978, Bellecourt famously organized a 3,000-mile walk from California to Washington, D.C. to lobby for the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLYDE BELLECOURT: We come here to D.C., turning back the anti-Indian legislation, the John Wayne frontier mentality that exists among the media today in their reporting.

(APPLAUSE)

C BELLECOURT: We are asking you to help us to stop these genocidal practices that are taking place against my people.

MARTINEZ: Bellecourt protested the U.S. government's failures to honor its treaties, and he fought to reclaim stolen land.

MARTIN: In an interview with NPR in 1999, he recounted his early days of activism, when AIM took over the town of Wounded Knee, S.D., for 71 days.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

C BELLECOURT: We had a lot of occupations, a lot of takeovers, a lot of demonstrations, and all those were needed. I mean, we're a small minority, you know? We had to make some noise. And we knew that unless we made that, nobody would listen to us.

MARTIN: AIM's influence spread throughout North America, promoting tribal sovereignty and a cultural revival. Bellecourt helped open two schools for Indigenous youth.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

C BELLECOURT: Our children are taught Chippewa, Sioux and Winnebago, and English is taught as a foreign language in our school. We teach our children a value system based on the respect for the Earth as our mother, which is something they don't teach in colleges and universities.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LITTLE CROW BELLECOURT: As I was a young boy, I used to have to wonder why my dad wasn't around a lot.

MARTINEZ: That's the voice of Little Crow Bellecourt, Clyde Bellecourt's eldest son.

MARTIN: He talked to NPR's Doualy Xaykaothao this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

L C BELLECOURT: As I got older, I learned to realize that everything he did was for our family and our Native peoples across the whole U.S.

MARTINEZ: Little Crow says his father always introduced himself with his Anishinaabe name, Nee-gon-we-way-we-dun, which means, The Thunder Before the Storm. He was 85.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIGHT TO THE BLIND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.