VERNON BELLECOURT, a member of the Chippewa tribe of the Lakota nation, has been a political activist and spokesperson for Native Americans for over 25 years. A founding member of the American Indian Movement, Vernon, whose Indian name WaBun-Inini means Man of Dawn, has been a principle leader in actions ranging from the 1972 occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington to the Redskin Superbowl demonstrations of 1992.
During a fact-finding mission to Ireland which included attending Sinn Fein's Ard Fheis, Vernon Bellecourt spoke to AP/RN about some of the many struggles facing his people and their affinity with the struggle against British oppression in Ireland.
Vernon: Let me begin by saying that, we, of the oppressed indigenous nations of the Americas, are here in your sacred lands to support your quest for peace. Wouldn't it be wonderful for the Irish people if after centuries of struggle against foreign domination, if peace were to break out throughout Ireland.
Perhaps the easiest way to illustrate the many ways in which the struggle of the Irish people and that of Native Americans inter-twine is to share with you the words of Oglala Lakota man Birgil Kills Straight as he outlines " What is the American Indian Movement?" You have only to substitute the words the American Indian Movement with the Irish Republican Movement to draw out the parallels.
Things will never be the same again and that is what the American Indian Movement (AIM) is all about. They are respected by many, hated by some, but they are never ignored. They are the catalyst for Indian sovereignty. From the outset AIM people are tough people, they had to be. AIM was born out of the dark violence of police brutality and the voiceless despair of Indian people in the courts of Minneapolis, Minnesota. AIM people have known the insides of jails. The American Indian Movement is then, the Warrior class of this century, who are bound to the bond of the Drum, who vote with their bodies instead of their mouths, their business is hope.
AP/RN: Irish republicans, particularly in the 1980s when British crown forces launched a series of attacks on funerals, have fought long and hard for the right to bury their dead in peace with dignity. At a time when republicans are challenging the British government's refusal to release the body of hanged IRA Volunteer Tom Williams, could you outline the continuing struggle of Native Americans against the plunder of traditional burial grounds and the campaign for the return and reburial of your ancestors?
Vernon: In the 1970s we first raised this very vital issue with the American government and the American people who literally had tens of thousands of skeletal remains of our patriots and martyrs in various universities, anthropological centres and museums. To take just one example, the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC had over 20,000 Native American skulls in their vaults.
Not only had our graves and sacred shrines been raided by the scientific community for decades but in other cases the bodies of our martyrs were never released for burial. In the late 19th Century, Charles Mayo, an eminent American doctor to which the famous Mayo Clinic owes its name, boiled the flesh from the bodies of 38 Lakota patriots, who had been executed in a mass hanging in Mankato, Minnesota, to use their remains for medical research.
In addition, artifact hunters, even today, raid the burial grounds of our ancestors to profit from the lucrative trade in traditional funeral pots and other sacred objects. Following a series of protests, AIM recently succeeded in securing federal legislation. The Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act has not only outlawed the practice of grave robbing but also enables the return and reburial of all remains to the indigenous nations from which they were stolen.
For these reasons AIM would fully support the Republican Movement's campaign to repatriate the remains of Irish patriot Tom Williams. I was in court during the recent hearing of the Williams' case in Belfast. As I witnessed the proceedings, I had to question, at a time when great efforts towards peace and reconciliation were underway, why those in positions of power and authority don't simply do the humane and correct thing and release Tom Williams' remains.
AP/RN: Recently during a match between England and Ireland, Dublin's Lansdowne Road football grounds witnessed an out burst of anti-Irish racism when a group of English fans attacked the crowd and chanted racist abuse. Native Americans are not only subjected to this kind of racist abuse but more fundamentally institutionalized racism within sport itself. As chairperson of the National Coalition on Racism in Sport and Media, could you outline the challenges facing Native Americans on this issue?
Vernon: AIM sees the Washington Redskins, the Atlanta Braves basketball teams, Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Indians baseball teams with their grinning buck-toothed mascot Chief Wahoo as demeaning the beautiful culture of the indigenous nations of the Americas. We are a living people with a vibrant culture and we refuse to have our identity trivialised and degraded. Indians are people, not mascots for America's fun and games.
Of course the same is true of Hollywood films. In the past we had Chuck Conners and Michael Ansara, who are not of our indigenous community, playing the leading role in Geronomo and we've had Jay Silverheels playing Tonto to the White hero the Lone Ranger. Today we have Graham Green, and former AIM member Russell Means, but essentially we're getting the same old movies. Of course we will not have our story told accurately until we have our own Spike Lees, our own film makers and screen writers.
AP/RN: As Program Developer for the Heart of the Earth Survival School, what importance would you attach to the teaching of native language and culture?.
Vernon: For centuries our people have been the victims of spiritual, cultural and physical genocide at the hands of the American imperialist and their settler regimes. AIM recognized the need very early on to start our own schools where we teach our own culture, language, music and art. These Heart of the Earth Survival schools have become a model that others have followed.
In 1989 a delegation of our students, spiritual leaders and artists first witnessed the important work of Belfast's first Irish medium school, Bunscoil Beal Feirste. In 1990 I also visited the bunscoil. Last week I became reacquainted with many of the children I met during by first visit five years ago, when I visited the Irish Meanscoil on the Falls Road.
Of course it is totally outrageous of the British government to refuse funding for the Meanscoil, but it is not surprising. The centre of a human being and the foundation of a nation is underpinned by their culture and language. The suppression of indigenous cultures has always been an integral part of imperialist conquest and domination.
Quotes from Vernon Bellecourt:
Things will never be the same again and that is what the American Indian Movement is all about. They are respected by many, hated by some, but they are never ignored.
The centre of a human being and the foundation of a nation is underpinned by their culture and language.