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Clyde Bellecourt, co-founder of the American Indian Movement, dies of cancer at 85

Clyde Bellecourt, co-founder or the American Indian Movement, is shown speaking in 2018 at Minneapolis City Hall. Bellecourt, a leader in the Native American struggle for civil rights and a founder of the American Indian Movement died at 85 on Tuesday night from cancer.
Amy Forliti
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AP
Clyde Bellecourt, co-founder or the American Indian Movement, is shown speaking in 2018 at Minneapolis City Hall. Bellecourt, a leader in the Native American struggle for civil rights and a founder of the American Indian Movement died at 85 on Tuesday night from cancer.

Updated January 12, 2022 at 4:37 PM ET

Clyde Bellecourt, one of the most significant Native American leaders in the struggle for civil rights, died in Minneapolis on Tuesday night, his son Wolf confirmed to Minnesota Public Radio.

Bellecourt was 85 and had been battling prostate cancer.

Bellecourt, who was born and grew up on the White Earth Indian Reservation, co-founded the American Indian Movement in 1968. It began as a local organization in Minneapolis and over decades has expanded to advocate for Native civil rights across the United States and Canada and around the world. AIM says that today, it represents over 375 million Indigenous people worldwide.

"At the heart, AIM is deeply rooted in spirituality, and a belief in the connectedness of all indigenous peoples," Bellecourt wrote in a letter for the organization.

One of AIM's original motives was to help combat and monitor police violence toward Native people. Over decades, the group has expanded to advocate for fair housing and education for Native communities, provide legal aid and protested against cultural appropriation. Bellecourt and others protested the 1992 Super Bowl, for example, calling out the now-former name of the Washington Football Team, which was a racist slur against Native Americans.

"His life's work was always about his people ... He really loved where he was from," Bellecourt's oldest son, Little Crow, told NPR.

"As I was young boy, I used to have to wonder why my dad wasn't around a lot. And as I got older, I learned to realize that his work and everything he did was for our family and extended family and our Native peoples across the U.S. and Canada," he said.

Clyde Bellecourt, head of the American Indian Movement, speaks at a press conference in New York in 1973. Bellecourt and two physicians, Alan Berkman and Barbara Zeller, had just returned from Wounded Knee, S.D., where AIM led a 50-day takeover.
Jim Wells / Associated Press
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Associated Press
Clyde Bellecourt, head of the American Indian Movement, speaks at a press conference in New York in 1973. Bellecourt and two physicians, Alan Berkman and Barbara Zeller, had just returned from Wounded Knee, S.D., where AIM led a 50-day takeover.

In 1978, Bellecourt addressed demonstrators in Washington, D.C., at the end of an event called the Longest Walk. The journey lasted from February to July that year, as Native Americans trekked across the country to protest legislation in Congress.

"We want you to know that we are attempting to call attention to and to gain your support in turning back the anti-Indian attitude, the anti-Indian legislation, the John Wayne frontier mentality that exists among the media today and the reporting," Bellecourt said in his remarks in D.C.

"We are asking you to help us stop these genocidal practices that are taking place against my people. We come here to D.C to educate the world that our culture is very much alive... Our religion and our way of life has survived all this time. We want you to know our strength is back," he said.

Though widely known for his activism, Bellecourt's son said his father loved watching baseball and the Minnesota Vikings. He was also deeply passionate about cooking and was committed to dinners with his family.

"A lot of people don't know that my dad really loved to cook. He was really good in the kitchen... He would get up at five in the morning and start making things he learned how to make from his mother," Little Crow Bellecourt said.

His death is mourned by generations of Native Americans.

"Today, we lost a civil rights leader who fought for more than a half century on behalf of Indigenous people in Minnesota and around the world. Indian Country benefited from Clyde Bellecourt's activism - he cleared a path for so many of us," Minnesota Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan tweeted.

"Journey well, Neegawnwaywidung," she said, referencing Bellecourt's Ojibwe name, which translates to thunder before the storm.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: January 13, 2022 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of this story misidentified Bellecourt's oldest son. His name is Little Crow.
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