American Indian Movement spokesperson dies, age 75

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Vernon Bellecourt, once the primary spokesperson for the American Indian Movement, died recently at age 75. Bellecourt, an Ojibwa who fought for Native rights, was perhaps best known for his opposition to Native names and mascots for sports teams.

First in the headlines in 1972, Bellecourt organized a cross-country caravan of the Movement, to Washington. Once there, members of the group occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs offices. His goal of international recognition for Aboriginal nations and their treaties found him meeting with figures like Libyan Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi, and Palestine's Yasir Arafat. In 1977 Leonard Peltier was convicted and sentenced to two consecutive life terms for the murder of two FBI Agents during a 1975 shoot-out on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation; Bellecourt led the campaign to free him.

Most recently, he visited Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, to discuss getting free or cheap heating oil for reservations.

His work as president of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media made a much wider known mark, though. Bellecourt emphasized that he believed such names perpetuated racial stereotypes, clouding the real identities and problems facing natives.

Teams with native-related names could almost guarantee on Bellecourt showing up at major games. He twice burned an effigy of Chief Wahoo, the Cleveland Indians baseball team mascot, and both times was arrested. When the Washington Redskins of the National Football League made the Super Bowl, Vernon was there to protest. The United States Commission on Civil Rights was critical of such names by 2001, calling them "insensitive in light of the long history of forced assimilation". Some newspapers have stopped using the names of teams with Native origins.

None of his "big four" targets have shown any indication of changing: the Washington Redskins, the Kansas City Chiefs, the Cleveland Indians or the Atlanta Braves.

Post-season use of American Indian mascots were banned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association in 2005, suggesting the names are "hostile or abusive". Bellecourt was pleased with the NCAA sanctions, but suggested such actions were only going "half way".

The Florida State Seminole and the Illinois Illini were among the 18 colleges affected by the ban. Florida president T.K. Wetherell threatened legal action in response. The Florida Seminole tribes have endorsed the University's usage of the name, but some out-of-state tribes were "not supportive", according to the NCAA vice president for diversity and inclusion.

Born WaBun-Inini, Bellecourt died from complications of pneumonia on October 13, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States.


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