The Thunder Before the Storm, also known as Clyde Bellecourt, voices the untold story of brutality against American Indians.
By Julia Yates
November 29, 2017 – Clyde Bellecourt, a native American activist and an original founder of the American Indian Movement (AIM) spoke to a small group of students at Cambridge campus, as well as a larger group at Coon Rapids campus earlier in November. Bellecourt is from the White Earth Community in Northwestern Minnesota and his Ojibwa name is Nee-gon-we-way-we-dun, which means “The Thunder Before the Storm.” He shared this and other pieces of his life as he recounted his life’s story and the story of how he found identity in his culture despite many hardships.
Bellecourt recalled that his father escaped the horrendous boarding school predicament that was forced on American Indian children during his generation to join the war (World War I). This was the alternative option to the boarding schools that 50,000 American Indian youth decided on. During the end of the war, he sustained 17 bullet wounds and was gassed, yet survived a war that was not his to fight, as indicated by a treaty that was not honored by the United States government.
Bellecourt’s mother also experienced the horrific boarding schools. Bellecourt retold the stories his mother told him about her experiences in boarding school. His mother refused to give up her language and was forced to scrub floors and toilets with toothbrushes. Yet, she persisted.
It was because of this perseverance that his mother was the source of his interest in his culture and native language. After he and his siblings would go to bed, his mother’s friends would come over and tell stories in Ojibwa. He recalled that hearing them speak in Ojibwa caused him to want to know his culture and speak the language of his people.
Due to both of his parents’ stories, Bellecourt fell in love with his American Indian heritage and, because of this, as a young child he would run away from school whenever he got the chance. His mother begged him to go back to school, but he refused. Eventually, Bellecourt dropped out of school because he was disgusted by the absence of American Indian history. The native people were depicted as savages in these school textbooks and he was told that his founding fathers were white Europeans who fought for rights here on this “free land.” In reality, Bellecourt always felt a disconnection to George Washington’s representation of being a “founding father.”
At 11 years old, Bellecourt recalled that he was sitting cuffed between two criminals. One was convicted of raping his children and the other for armed bank robbery. This was his first experience going to a correctional facility. He was headed to the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Red Wing. This began the time in his life between correctional facilities and eventually jail, often being cited for civil disobedience while he protested for the rights of American Indians.
It was these experiences that brought Bellecourt to co-found the American Indian Movement (AIM) on July 28, 1968. AIM’s mission statement is to “combat the history of police brutality and racism experienced by Indian people in the Twin Cities of Minnesota and to bring needed Government funding into the Indian community.”
They proved to do just that at Wounded Knee. On February 27, 1973 federal agents began the siege of Wounded Knee, the place of the 1890 massacre that killed 150 American Indians, most of whom were women and children. The 1973 siege lasted for 71 days and was entitled “Operation Garden Plot.” Operation Garden Plot was an initiative that was designed to test the Army and National Guard plan to respond to major domestic civil disturbances which the federal government tested at Wounded Knee. Each night gun fire riddled Wounded Knee.
Bellecourt expressed that this brutality still continues to this day, citing the example of Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline. Bellecourt stressed that the fear of the American Indian people became a reality when approximately 176,000 gallons of crude oil was found leaked out of Belle Fourche Pipeline, which is located 150 miles from the Standing Rock protests. This proved the point that American Indian people are subject to different types of brutality to this day, such as this loss of drinking water due to monetary greed.
Bellecourt expressed concern that, yet again, another pipeline has been proposed to run through his homeland, White Earth. He encourages students to stand up for American Indian’s rights as continued brutality has not ceased.