My receptionist, Christy Tibbitts, stuck her head in the door of my office at the Lakota Times weekly newspaper several years ago and said, "There's a Vernon Bellecourt on the line."
Whoa! Vernon Bellecourt? Bellecourt was one of the spokesmen and founders of the American Indian Movement, and as the editor and publisher of the Lakota Times; I had my share of confrontations with AIM. I had accused them of shooting out the windows of my newspaper building and of attacking it with firebombs just before Christmas in 1981.
With just a little bit of trepidation I answered the phone. "Hey Tim, this is Vernon Bellecourt. I know you're probably surprised, but I just read one of your articles in the St. Paul Pioneer Press about your anger at using Indians as mascots. I just wanted to tell you that you are right on and I would like to meet with you about this," he said.
In 1992, the week the Washington professional football team met the Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl in Minneapolis, an article by me about the use of Indians as mascots appeared in Newsweek Magazine. Some enterprising editor put the headline on it that read, "I hope the Redskins lose." Nowhere in the article did I say, "I hope the Redskins lose," and that brought the wrath of every Redskin fan in the country down on my head. I traveled to Minneapolis that week to cover the protest and had my first meeting with Vernon Bellecourt.
We had a cup of coffee a day or two before the Super Bowl and he told me that there would be a protest by several hundred Indians at the stadium. We kicked around ideas for future articles and then I had to fly back to South Dakota because I was on a deadline.
Bellecourt impressed me in that he was willing to reach across the table and shake hands with me even though many of his cohorts looked at me as a political enemy. I had no qualms about shaking his hand because I was there as a newspaperman and not as a politician.
The last time I saw Vernon was at a restaurant in New York City. I had dinner with him and another well-known mascot protestor, Charlene Teters. The restaurant was on the top floor of a building that rotated so that we could see different parts of the New York skyline. After dinner Bellecourt reached into his pocket and pulled out two cigars. He said, "I got these directly from Fidel Castro when I was visiting Cuba last month." I must admit that it was one of the best cigars I had ever smoked.
From the day of our first phone visit Bellecourt kept me abreast of the different protests around the country that his organization, The National Coalition on Racism in Sports & Media, would be conducting. The previous year I had covered the protest at the University of Illinois and Michael Haney, Charlene Teters, and Vernon were there. Haney, an Oklahoma Seminole Indian, passed away a few years ago.
I was on my way from Albuquerque to Rapid City, SD last week when Teters called me on my cell phone to inform me that Vernon was critically ill. By the time I got to Rapid City he had died. His funeral was held on his home reservation of White Earth in Minnesota last week.
Bellecourt's death brought up a lot of the things that had been a part of the history of the American Indian Movement. There was talk of his involvement in the death of Anna Mae Pictou Aquash in the 1970s and of other things that happened in the heydays of AIM. There is no proof of this allegation.
When told about the death of Bellecourt, former AIM leader Russell Means said he was sad to hear about his death because, "I wanted him to live long enough to go to jail for Anna Mae's death." Well, all of this should come out at the trial of John "Boy" Graham that should take place in Rapid City in 2008. Arvol Looking Cloud who was convicted in her death and is now serving a life sentence accused Graham of being the triggerman. Perhaps the truth will finally be known.
There were a lot of bad things that happened in the 1970s in the angry early days of AIM. I am sure that many of AIM's leaders wish that they had done some things differently, but in the long run, they were fighting for the trampled rights of the Indian people and the route they chose was confrontational and often ended up violently.
Before asking me to work with him on the mascot issue Bellecourt shook my hand again and said, "Tim, I know that you and me didn't always see eye-to-eye, but if you really look at it, we were fighting for the same things, but we were probably coming at it from different directions."
There is a Lakota tradition that says one should never speak ill of the dead. And I know there will be accusatory words flying around that would disparage Vernon Bellecourt, but I only knew him as a friend and in my prayers I hope that his travels to the Spirit World be filled with wonders.
(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991 and founder of The Lakota Times and Indian Country Today newspapers. He founded and was the first president of the Native American Journalists Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)