Bellecourt, Vernon: AIM spokesman passes away

by Paul DeMain and The Associated Press
Minneapolis, Minnesota (AP/ICC) 10-07

Vernon Bellecourt, the key media flack man for AIM, and who most recently fought against the use of Indian nicknames for sports teams as a longtime leader of the American Indian Movement, has passed away at age 75.

Bellecourt died October 13 at Abbott Northwestern Hospital of complications from pneumonia, said his brother, Clyde Bellecourt, a founding member of the militant American Indian rights group.

Just before he was put on a respirator, Vernon Bellecourt joked that the CIA had finally gotten him, his brother said.

"He was willing to put his butt on the line to draw attention to racism in sports," his brother said.

Amongst journalists and federal investigators, he was known as the man that AIM put up front to divert attention from the emerging murders AIM committed during the 1970's, including the execution style slaying of Micmac activist Annie Mae Pictou-Aquash.

According to News From Indian Country editor Paul DeMain, "Bellecourt basically proposed and worked with the frame-work for blaming the FBI and in particular, SA David Price for the 1975 murder of Aquash," but admitted publicly that one of his jobs was to identify and neutralize FBI informants. Bellecourt came to believe that Aquash was an FBI informant partner to Doug Durham in late 1974 and he was named as the most prominent AIM leader who was whispering the accusation to other members within the organization.

Bellecourt was named by several NFIC sources and AIM members including Robert Robideau as the AIM leader that ordered Leonard Peltier, Dino Bulter and Robideau to interrogate Aquash in Farmington, New Mexico during June of 1975. Robideau called for the extradition of Graham in 2007 and was promptly fired as Peltier's national spokesman.

Annie Mae Aquash

In 1999, AIM leader Russell Means during a Denver, Colorado press conference said "Vernon Bellecourt order her death." Means also alleged that Clyde Bellecourt took the orders for Aquash's murder from Bellecourt while he (Clyde) was at the home of Bill Means where Aquash was brought by Arlo Looking Cloud, Theda Nelson-Clark and John Graham the morning she was killed. Bellecourt later told a potential prosecution witness that his brother Clyde was as Mean's house after denying it to the press, but told the individual that "of course he would deny it if asked" by the press.

Former AIM member and national chairman John Trudell testified in June, 1977 during the Butler/Robideau trial that Dennis Banks on or around February 26, 1976 in California told him that Annie Mae's body had been found near Wambli (South Dakota) and that she had been shot in the back of the head. What Trudell has not said publicly, but has discussed with friends and associates is that Vernon and Clyde Bellecourt were in the back seat of the car when the discussion was taking place.

Aquash was not identified officially until March 10, 1975 by the FBI who had removed her hands in order to send them to the Washington, D.C. lab for fingerprinting. Bank's former wife, KaMook Nichols confirmed during the Looking Cloud murder trial in 2004, that Banks had also told her that Annie Mae's body had been found around February 25th, 1976 two weeks before she was identified through her fingerprints.

John Boy Graham

The pending extradition of John Graham from Canada is expected to shed more light on the murder of Aquash and several others attributed to AIM leadership paranoia, including the deaths of black activist Perry Ray Robinson Jr. inside Wounded Knee during AIM's occupation in 1973 and Roque Duenas in 1981 sometime after Peltier's failed Lompoc Prison break. Former AIM members familiar with the federal investigation have said that Duenas was another alleged informant fingered for elimination by Vernon Bellecourt.

A few others Bellecourt named as informants over the years were Ward Chuchill, Bobby Castilo, Robert Robideau, Chris Spotted Eagle, George Roberts, Minnie Two Shoes, Iris Thundercloud, Harry David Hill, Derek Whirlwind, Barb Nixon and Russell Means.

Carter Camp, named as an informant by Bellecourt in 1974 shot his brother Clyde in one of the most prominent internal AIM disputes of the times. Bellecourt was involved at press conferences in 1975 exposing Doug Durham and Bernie Morning Gun, and during a press conference publicaly gave other informants 30 days to turn themselves in, or "AIM would deal with them in our own way." Most recently Bellecourt has disparaged as traitors of the movement and rats, John Trudell and KaMook Nichols after they testified for the federal government in 2004 during the Looking Cloud murder trial.

While Vernon Bellecourt told the Associated Press he knew nothing of the death of Ray Robinson in 1973, who was shot twice inside Wounded Knee, one time in each leg, he confided to several AIM members and a NFIC contributing writer familiar with the Robinson case, that he knew that he (Robinson) had been killed and buried at Wounded Knee in 1973. When pressed by the NFIC writer to tell the truth about what he was confiding, Bellecourt responded that if he now told the truth, "everybody would think he was a liar."

Vernon Bellecourt was the only AIM leader to fly to Vancouver, British Columbia to sit in on the extradition proceedings of John Boy Patton Graham and to make public statements supporting the contention that he was an innocent victim being framed by the FBI.

looking cloud.jpg
Arlo Looking Cloud

Bellecourt also convinced attorney Terri Gilbert to offer his services to Arlo Looking Cloud, for filing an appeal, after Looking Cloud was convicted of "Being a Party to the 1st Degree Murder" of Aquash in a 2004 Rapid City trial. Gilbert was fired by Looking Cloud after Looking Cloud discovered that he and Vernon Bellecourt had a long time legal relationship through AIM beginning in the 1970's.

Former AIM member Richard Two Elk said Bellecourt once visited Arlo Looking Cloud in a Denver, Colorado hotel to ask him questions about who he had been talking to about the Aquash case. Looking Cloud over the years had been beaten up, ran over and shot at through a bathroom window while taking a shower because of the Aquash case.

Looking Cloud told journalist Paul DeMain during a discussion in 2002 that he "wanted nothing to do with the two brothers in Minneapolis" responsible for "setting him up."

Looking Cloud later wrote another letter to DeMain denying that he ever signed an affidavit indicating that he would not testify against John Graham. He wrote, that if anyone signed an affidavit, it was Attorney Gilbert, who had advised Looking Cloud not to testify at a 2004 grand jury hearing in order that he (Looking Cloud) not jeopardize an up and coming trial appeal. Looking Cloud agreed not to testify before the grand jury and was sent back to the Florence, Colorado prison he was then assigned to. The appeal was later denied by the Appellate Court.

In 2001 Vernon Bellecourt set up an interview with John Graham after Graham appeared in a Canadian Broadcast Corporation special one hour segment aired on Dec. 5, 2000 called, "Silenced: The Execution of Anna Mae," and did poorly describing his role in transporting Aquash to Rapid City, South Dakota and then to Bill Mean's house during December 1975, which irritated Bellecourt.

The Associated Press reported on a portion of the interview after reviewing documents and the tape recording of the conversation which took place in Vancouver, British Columbia in 2001, the intent, which was suppose to improve upon the alibi being given by John Graham.

However, during the interview Graham admitted being with Annie Mae Aquash up until the moments she was shot. Whether Graham actually shot Aquash was not established in the recorded interview, but it is clear the Graham is with Aquash just minutes prior to her death.

Vernon Bellecourt — whose Objibwe name WaBun-Inini meaning Man of Dawn was born on May 8, 1936. He was a member of Minnesota's White Earth Chippewa band and was the international spokesman for the AIM Grand Governing Council based in Minneapolis and headed up the American Indian Movement's "Internal and Domestic Security Intelligence' apparatus, the equivalent to the FBI's Counter Intelligence Programs.

Under the guise of exposing informants, Bellecourt, the late Paula Giese and attorney Ken Tilsen, all in Minneapolis, AIM members engaged in testing the status of alleged informants by planting closely held information on individuals, then seeing where it appeared. Some of the information was truthful, other information was false.

One such false release was the infamous "Dog Soldier" memo during 1975 which was leaked to several individuals. Before the month was over, the FBI and press were reporting on the alleged threats being spread. It is not know if anyone was identified as an informant during the process, but AIM, under the guidance of its spokesmen, turned the FBI and press coverage around to claim the "FBI" was fabricating information about them and giving it to the press.

The group also engaged in Black Bag jobs, Giese once being assigned by Bellecourt to break into George Robert's California AIM studio to review records and documents when Bellecourt alleged that he might be connected to the CIA and South American drug dealing into the U.S. It was these three AIM affiliates that fingered Annie Mae Pictou-Aquash in late 1974 as an informant and began working to "secure her."

The late Yakama journalist Richard LaCourse, working on a book entitled "The Buckskin Dossier" on AIM in 1999 wrote a biography of Bellecourt, in part noting that Vernon Bellecourt was "one of 12 children, seven sisters and four brothers. He attended a public school on the White Earth Reservation which became a parochial school through the eight grade, and dropped out as a high school freshman at age 15, moved to Minneapolis and was imprisoned for armed robbery, receiving a 40-year sentence."

"Bellecourt was paroled after three and one half years, then reoffended and did another three and one half years moving to Denver, Colorado where he became owner of a beauty solon called "Mr. Vernon's." The rest of the biography notes the same material provided to the Associated Press by Clyde Bellecourt which highlights his accomplishments.

Clyde Bellecourt helped found AIM as a militant group in 1968 and Vernon Bellecourt, a Denver hair dresser and real estate agent, soon became involved, taking part of AIM affairs outside of the 1973 occupation of the town of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. He was present only briefly during the 71-day standoff with federal agents, serving mostly as a spokesman and fundraiser, Clyde Bellecourt said.

AIM member Carter Camp has insisted that Vernon Bellecourt never set foot inside Wounded Knee during the occupation as Bellecourt has sometimes claimed.

He was active in the campaign to free AIM activist Leonard Peltier, who was convicted of killing two FBI agents during a shootout in 1975 on the Pine Ridge reservation.

He was also involved as a negotiator in AIM's 1972 occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington as part of the Trail of Broken Treaties caravan.

In recent years, Bellecourt had been active in the fight against American Indian nicknames for sports teams as president of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media.

He was arrested in Cleveland during the 1997 World Series and again in 1998 during protests against the Cleveland Indians' mascot, Chief Wahoo.

After Wounded Knee, Vernon Bellecourt became a leader of AIM's work abroad, meeting with presidents such as Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, his brother said. He said they plan to list them as honorary pallbearers.

Clyde Bellecourt said his brother had been in Venezuela prior to his death to meet with President Hugo Chavez. He fell ill around the time of his return, Clyde Bellecourt said.

Wake services were held October 15, 2007 at the All Nations Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota and then on October 16 at the Circle of Life School on the White Earth Chippewa Reservation in northern Minnesota. Burial was October 17 on the White Earth Reservation with services conducted by the Three Fires Society.