Remembering Vernon Bellecourt, Strategist, Diplomat, Warrior,Uncle,Teacher and Friend by Thomas Pearce

Vernon Bellecourt providing strategic counsel to Warriors at Falls of the Ohio Occupation, In Picture Chico Dulak, Vernon Bellcourt, the late Mike Ford, , Myself Randy Medrano

“You kids have bitten off more than you can chew said he man at the table in the coffee shop outside the Democratic convention in 1988 in Atlanta”. I turned to look at who was speaking to me. It was Vernon Bellecourt, one of the brightest minds to ever come from Indian Country. I was speechless of course. What were the odds that he would be here where a large group of radicals and militants were about to have a confrontation with police outside the Omni? Well of course, where else would Uncle be. It is amazing he passed on the day after Columbus day, one of his strongest efforts to oppose racism was his effort to counter the celebration of 500 years of genocide since Columbus.  It is also not surprising he was in Venezuela meeting with Hugo Chavez’s top advisers negotiating for cheap heating oil for Indian nations in the USA shortly before he died.

He asked me what our demands were. I responded “break down this evil government”. He said “you look outnumbered and you look frantic, and you look like you are about to get your butts kicked and no one will ever know you existed.” “What do you think?” I looked out the window. We had running confrontations with the Atlanta police for days. They had taken all the homeless people out of the parks downtown and pushed them elsewhere. We had been retaking the parks. We had disrupted Good Morning America broadcasting live in Woodruff Park, and the cherry on top? We had carried out a citizen’s arrest on Randall Terry the Operation Rescue terrorist on his way to shut down an abortion clinic. We had also closed Georgia Power in the name of the people and we had gotten the police damn mad at us. Us being a ragtag group of Anarchists, African American militants, No business as Usual, the RCP, AIM youth, and if I left anyone out tell me I will add you in. We were drawing attention to the Democratic Party and its shabby treatment of Jesse Jackson’s candidacy (Jesse took 7 Southern States and was not invited to be VP).

Vernon had my attention, it seems we were being led into an ambush by infiltrators. There were about 300 cops and 200 of us. There were a handful of TV cameras but we had no representatives or press releases and someone had shouted “let’s take the convention”, Vernon convinced me to go outside and try to talk my comrades to pull out of this insane nose dive as it would achieve nothing but getting the crap beat out of us and thrown in jail. He then gave me the Leonard Peltier button off his jacket (which I still have to this day) and he encouraged me to come to Piedmont Park to a Powwow being held by AIM and the International Indian Treaty Council. He then said “nephew you are a courageous warrior but you need to get organized, we need you to stand with us to get indigenous people’s demands heard, not in the hospital for nothing”. Well I did just what he suggested. I went outside and tried to talk sense into the gang. I was successful to a point and then it became obvious who the infiltrator was. He responded “you are a counter-revolutionary”. Long story short the majority crawled out of there with minor injuries. The handful that stayed got the dog shit beat out of them to the point one was in a coma. The infiltrator? Walked away unscathed. It was the first of many strategic lessons I would learn from the master strategist, Uncle Vernon Bellecourt

Vernon and Mike Haney marching alongside Indigenous families to protest Chief Illinewik at U of I homecoming

I had been in Kentucky working with AIM and Dennis Banks in the Uniontown reburial of 1500 native people dug up by grave robbers and was soon to be the Executive Director of the Kentuckiana Native American Support Group. My life would never be the same. From that time on I was a true believer in the legendary ability for this man to spot the “infiltrator”. I will not spend a lot of time on the subject of frauds like Ward Churchill who left death threats (I have the answering machine tapes) against Uncle but was never arrested, who supported the Contras, who has never even lived in Indian Country, but let’s just say that Vernon was a very perceptive individual.

I want to focus on the fact that Uncle was one of the few true revolutionary Indian nationalists who cultivated within the movement an understanding that the struggles of all oppressed people were connected. He traveled to Ireland and met with the leaders of the Irish Republicans, he traveled to the Middle East and met with Arafat, he would then come back to the USA and take his slides from these trips and show them at lectures where many would show up expecting a speech only about Indians. Vernon would not let anyone leave his site without making sure they knew that the struggles of people in Latin America, Ireland, The Middle East, South Africa, and all over the world would never be won unless we all stood together against capitalism and imperialism,unless we all were one!  He could talk about Haiti and the struggle for revolution there for hours.

Shortly after I started to work closely with Vernon he sat me down one day and talked to me about a few important things. “My Boy, I think you have what it takes to be an organizer and you are needed in White Earth right now to help them fight for a stronger community.” What do you want me to do Vern?” I asked. I want you to go to White Earth and spend your time with George Fairbanks (Mishkow Binise) he is the closest living descendant to White Cloud and he will know what you need to do. Three or four years later we were pulled over by the police on the side of the road having just dropped off supplies to “Camp Justice” an effort to take the tribal government back corrupt Chairman Chip Wadena. We succeeded. During this time I spent a lot of time rallying resources for the rez that would go toward the struggle. Doing press work to get the story out of Indian Country and well organizing. During this time George and I became so close he adopted me as his son.  Vernon always knew where organizers would be best utilized. The community leaders just the essence of my life as we worked to bring about a better day. Many have said that Vernon cared more about Ireland. I can tell you in my formative years in AIM I was assigned to organize supporting local struggles at the grassroots level. That it was about those traditional families that were keeping the language alive, keeping the ceremonies alive, protecting the land. He never presented himself as a “White Earth” Leader he always deferred to George and Margaret Norcross who taught the old ways, who taught the language. They were the leaders, the focus, and I was to support them.

Vernon speaking at occupation of White Earth Tribal HQ “Camp Justice” 

These were the most magical times in my life. When we were not camping in residents woods behind their houses we would sleep in  a van in the Tamarak Wildlife refuge listening to the wolves sing us to sleep, Northern Lights raging above us in the sky.

Vernon knew where AIM people needed to be. As technical resources and organizing assistance to the traditional communities. That was the task. Yes many know of the World Series protests against the Braves, many know about burning Chief Wahoo, but not many know that at the end of the day the first priority was to the people and the land. Vernon loved White Earth and the best days I ever saw him were driving out to White Earth or Strawberry lake and sitting with Christine and I as we shared some Mahnomen (wild rice) and all smiled as a graceful eagle plucked a walleye from the water in Talons dripping, and he looked at us and said “kids that is what it is all about”.” Someday I will build a cabin here and retire”. We knew he would never retire but sometimes I think he is sitting on that log by Strawberry Lake right now.

Christine Tom and Vern Swimming in cold September Strawberry Lake

People also do not now of the role he played in supporting uprisings and standoffs in Mohawk lands, when he went to jail along with Bob Brown founder of the Black Panthers in Louisiana (18 months) for traveling to Libya and accepting the Momar Khadafy International Human Rights Award on behalf of the Mohawk People and the uprising at Oka. The prize was 1,000,000. To this day no one knows what happened to that money. He refused to testify until Bon urged him to do so. When he did he said not much more than “The Libyan people are a freedom loving people, it is a beautiful country, and the food is marvelous”. The US government tried to accuse him of conspiring to bring stinger missiles into the USA from Libya. This was obviously a bald-faced lie and they ended up letting him go and then Bob some years later.

People do not know that Vernon called me from Mexico City to tell me he had just marched with Comandante Marcos and the Zapatistas into the square with 100,000 people demanding autonomy for Mexico’s indigenous people 

Vernon was a dynamo of international solidarity. Solidarity also with the people of Nicaragua in the mid 80s while certain infiltrators were supporting the Contras, solidarity with the indigenous people of Colombia fighting Occidental Petroleum from drilling their land, solidarity with every Indian and indigenous person from Australia to Argentina, Vernon was working for a revolution that he thought we could win. Guess what? He instilled this vision in me and I still believe we can win. “If all oppressed people from Argentina to the Arctic Circle stand together we can not lose” Vernon used to say.

Vernon was an amazing educator as well. He spoke at Universities from Dublin to Notre Dame and when he spoke at Notre Dame he spoke of the genocide done on Indian people by the Catholic Church. He never softened his message to become palatable. He also never turned down any speaking engagement when the students inviting him had little or no money. I know, for 10 years I arranged most of his speaking engagements. I have most of it on video or audio and am working to have it digitized now. Vernon would also read the paper anywhere he went and address the issue most crucial to the oppressed people in that community. He never rubber stamped any oppression. Of course I could give chapter and verse about his efforts to expose certain elements in the USA who had been co-opted by the government, people who supported the CIA backed Contras and still tried to call themselves AIM but I would honor them by mention and I won’t do that.

Wa bun Inni “Day Break Man” is with us everyday as we walk forward. The struggles he supported in the student movement against Chief Illinewik continue to this day. having been originally started by AIM leader and artist Charlene Teters, Vernon instructed is all to give that struggle every bit of help we could muster and we did. We disrupted half time, tryouts for the Chief, Charlene fearlessly led the protests against U of I homecoming and Vernon always had the students back. He supported Indian people like a bear protects the young. He fought and fought and fought.

Vernon with the Falls of the Ohio Occupation Crew Chico Dulak, Vernon Bellecourt, Kathy Wakil,Yours truly,Supporter Less Garber, and Randy Medrano

Then when it came to our community here in Louisville? In 1991 the city of Clarksville Indiana decided to build a racist interpretive center full of plaster primitives and they planned on building it on a burial mound known to be on the site. Vernon came in immediately and helped us coordinate a three-month stand-off and occupation.He told the Indiana press that if they didn’t back off we were “going to go to the grave of President Harrison and dig him up”. Well that is when the men in black suits made themselves apparent and spent their days with telephoto lenses taking our pictures. Well in the end we won. They moved the proposed building 100 yards and no one got killed. We never backed down and Vernon was with us from the beginning. When it is all said and done Vernon was always there if he could be for Indian people, for African-American people, African People, Irish people,  Middle Eastern People, Latin American People, all oppressed people, even a small group of Indians in Clarksville Indiana trying to save a burial ground.

Vernon speaking at U of I homecoming with me watching his back from hostile fans

Vernon was quick to quote all the famous Indian leaders of the last 500 years. Vernon said that all of America was occupied territory, including Latin America and all of North America. He taught us that we could win if we dared to stand up and that if we did not stand up we were for ever doomed to meaningless powerless  lives. He believed in controlling your local economy and controlling the land. He was my best friend for more than 20 years and I can tell you all the skill I have as an organizer flows from four people in the beginning. Vernon Bellecourt, Dennis Banks, Michael Haney, and Anne Braden legendary anti racist organizer. Without these people teaching me and leading me to become a leader and a fighter I would have done not very much with my life. He lives on through all freedom fighters everywhere. I have not much respect for anyone who does not “vote with their body” something Vernon taught me to look for. Anyone can run their mouth. “Very few will stand against the ramparts when the time comes”. “There is a pivotal moment when people show their true selves, and you will know whether you can depend on them from that time on” Vernon used to say. This does not make them bad people it just means they will always be controlled and never shape a destiny of justice.

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks that was a nice tribute to my Dad.

    • Glad you liked it. He was my best friend for many years.


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