Published on June 7, 2012 by Amy
Vernon Bellecourt, Indian name WaBun-Inini, (October 17, 1931 – October 13, 2007) was a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe (located in Minnesota), and a Native American rights activist, one of the highest leaders in the American Indian Movement (AIM). In the Ojibwe language, his name meant “Man of Dawn.”
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One of 12 children in his family, Bellecourt was born on the White Earth Indian Reservation, where he lived until he was sixteen years old. In 1947 his family moved to the city of Minneapolis, where his parents sought better opportunities for themselves and their children. When Bellecourt was nineteen, he was convicted of robbing a Saint Paul, Minneapolis tavern and sentenced to time in St. Cloud prison.
At his release, he started working as a hairdresser and opened a series of beauty salons in Saint Paul. He married and had children with his wife. In the mid 1960s, he sold his business and moved his family near Aspen, Colorado.
Bellecourt was a long-time leader in the American Indian Movement, which his younger brother, Clyde Bellecourt, helped found in 1968. Vernon soon became involved as well. He co-founded the AIM chapter in Denver, and was its first Executive Director. It worked in urban areas to ensure civil rights for American Indians, as well as to educate people about their cultural and spiritual heritage.
Bellecourt took part in the 1972 Trail of Broken Treaties caravan to Washington, DC. He served as a negotiator during AIM’s occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters building at the Department of Interior. Bellecourt was present briefly during the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He acted as an AIM spokesman and fundraiser during the 71-day standoff with federal agents.
After Wounded Knee, Bellecourt worked with the International Indian Treaty Council, which advocates on behalf of Indigenous rights throughout the Western Hemisphere. He became a leader of AIM’s work abroad, meeting with foreign leaders such as Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Muammar al-Gaddafi of Libya, and Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat.
Bellecourt was active for many years in the campaign to free AIM activist Leonard Peltier, who was convicted in 1977 of killing two FBI agents during a 1975 shootout on the Pine Ridge Reservation. He was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences.
In 2002 Paul DeMain, editor of the independent News from Indian Country, published an editorial saying that he had been told by confidential sources that Peltier had bragged in 1975 to other AIM members about killing at least one of the agents. He also wrote that AIM leaders had feared Anna Mae Aquash, the highest ranking woman in AIM, may have been an informant and ordered her execution. She was found dead on the Pine Ridge Reservation on February 1976 and was found to have been shot in the back of the head in late December 1975. In 2003 a federal grand jury indicted Arlo Looking Cloud and John Graham in the murder of Aquash. Looking Cloud was convicted in 1974, at a trial in which witnesses testified about Peltier’s bragging. Graham was extradited from Canada in 2007 and indicted by the state of South Dakota in 2009. He was convicted of felony murder of Aquash in 2010. Both men are serving life sentences. Authorities are continuing to investigate the murder. The two daughters of Aquash believe that only high-ranking leader(s) of AIM could have ordered her execution.