Vernon Bellacourt and Jay Rosenstein

Vernon Bellecourt with Jay Rosenstein


The movement to rid the University of Illinois and the Champaign-Urbana community of the Chief Illiniwek mascot had many heroes. But perhaps none so important, yet locally not so well known, as Vernon Bellecourt. Vernon passed away on Sunday in Minneapolis of complications from pneumonia. He was 75.

Most people who have followed the Chief issue already know the story of Charlene Teters – how as a graduate student at U of I she started protesting alone, eventually building a movement that led to the Chief’s demise. But what most people don’t know is that when Charlene began and was suffering constant harassment by the community, she put out a desperate call for help. The first person to answer was Vernon Bellecourt.

Vernon hopped a train to Champaign-Urbana, and immediately added his physical presence to Charlene’s fight. And what a presence he had. Vernon had charisma by the score, taking over every room he stepped into. If Vernon was in the vicinity, he had your attention. It all began with his voice, a voice so powerful it always arrived about an hour before he did.

But there was much much more to Vernon. He was a clear-thinker, incredibly articulate, and a phenomenal public speaker. He could captivate and inspire audiences, and did it every chance he got. He had a sharp wit, and a great sense of humor too. Once I saw him on a television program about a song by country superstar Tim McGraw that used many American Indian stereotypes. McGraw defended himself by saying he was part Indian. Vernon’s on camera
reply was priceless, “He says he’s part Indian, so I want to know what part. Certainly not his brain.” I almost fell off of my couch laughing.

But growing up in total poverty, Vernon was an unlikely candidate to become an international spokesman. He was born on the White Earth reservation, one of eleven children. Like most American Indians of his generation, his fate was pretty much sealed at birth. Poverty, alcohol, crime, and hopelessness, Vernon saw it all as a child, and quickly landed himself deep in the juvenile justice system. But while in juvenile prison he had an awakening and turned his life around.

As a young man he was well on his way to living the American dream. He was a successful real estate salesman, married, when a visit to his younger brother Clyde in Minneapolis would change his life forever. Clyde had just started an activist group called the American Indian Movement, and when Vernon visited the group’s little storefront office for the first time, he saw what he had been looking for his whole life: the warrior spirit in the young people working for the group. Vernon immediately dropped out of traditional American society, and would spend the rest of his life fighting tirelessly for American Indian causes as a leader of the American Indian Movement.

Vernon traveled the world as an advocate for American Indian rights, and his travels landed him frequently in Champaign-Urbana. Vernon led scores of anti-Chief marches, rallies, meetings, and effigy burnings -- one of his favorite tactics. I believe I attended them all.

Vernon’s passing hit me particularly hard. In 1993, I had already been thinking about making a documentary on the Chief Illiniwek controversy for two years, but I was unable to take the first step. Then I saw an article in the Daily Illini about an American Indian who was a guest in residence at Allen Hall’s Unit One. I picked up the phone cold and asked if I could interview him. Vernon, on the other end, quickly agreed. Had he not consented so readily, or perhaps not been in his room, my documentary “In Whose Honor?” would have never been made. I am thankful that through my film, Vernon (as well as Michael Haney, another Indian activist who died too young) can live on and continue to influence future generations. I owe him a great deal.

Vernon was an inspiration and a model for how one can live a life committed to social causes. He was certainly no saint and had his critics, but he never let them distract him or slow him down even one bit. He knew he had more important things to do, and he did them, tirelessly. Goodbye WaBun-Inini. And thank you.

by Jay Rosenstein ©2007 jay rosenstein