American Indian Activist Targeted Sports Mascots

Vernon Bellecourt, who fought to protect the images of American Indians, has died at the age of 75. Suzan Shown Harjo, a columnist for Indian Country Today, talks about Bellecourt's fight for respectful mascots in sports. The activist argued that some mascots harshly degrade the pride of Native American culture.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up in just a few minutes, our monthly visit with the magazine mavens. They have some eye-opening articles this month, including one about cosmetic surgery.

But first, we want to take a moment to remember a man who fought to restore land and dignity to Native Americans around the world.

If you find yourself cringing at the names of sports teams and mascots with fake Indian names and cartoonish images, Vernon Bellecourt might be one reason why. Bellecourt died over the weekend at the age of 75. With his brother Clyde, he was a longtime leader of the American Indian Movement.

Joining me here in the studio to talk about his life and legacy is Suzan Harjo. She is president of the Morning Star Institute, a native rights organization, and a columnist for Indian Country Today.

Welcome. Thank you so much for coming in.

Ms. SUZAN SHOWN HARJO (President, Morning Star Institute; Columnist, Indian Country Today): Thank you.

MARTIN: First of all, what tribe was he a member of, and if you could share his traditional name?

Ms. HARJO: His Anishinaabe name was WaBun-Inini, which means man of dawn. And he was Anishinaabe, which is also Ojibwe or Chippewa from the White Earth Chippewa Reservation in northwestern Minnesota.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. And he had this recently remarkable career. I don't know that many, you know, national civil rights leaders, international civil rights leaders who started out as a successful hairstylist and a real estate agent. How did that happen? How did he get into the civil rights movement?

Ms. HARJO: Well, he, I think, was pushed out of school as a high schooler and ended up in prison when he was 19 and learned how to be a barber. And from there, he became an entrepreneur and became a hairstylist, had a whole chain of hairstyling salons, and was happily on the slopes outside of Denver and doing quite well for himself. And his brother Clyde convinced him to come back to Minneapolis and to help start the American Indian Movement, which started out as an effort for the urban Indian community in the Twin City's area to police the police because so many native people were being harassed and being injured and emotionally harmed on the streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul. And they did that and they were very successful. And they did help clean up some of the imposed violence on the people there.

MARTIN: How did he get interested in this question of sports team names and mascots and so forth?

Ms. HARJO: I think he came to it through the general Indian movement that started in the early '60s all over Indian countries especially in Oklahoma and in California and at Dartmouth, of all places. And the first of the sports teams to drop its native reference was the University of Oklahoma, which dropped Little Red, it being Big Red, and had a little dancing idiot named -who was a real person, a non-Indian person who would run up and down and do things that were supposed to be Indian dances.

And at that time, when that mascot fell in 1970, there were over 3,000 native references in sports. Today - and this is the first successful movement - today, there are fewer than a thousand. So two-thirds of the sports references that deal with Native Americans, and are so offensive to us, have been eliminated.

MARTIN: But not many of the professional teams have been.

Ms. HARJO: Oh, none. None.

MARTIN: None of the professional teams, the coliseums. So we only have about a minute left, I wonder if you think that - would he think - do you think that that fight was in vain, and what do you think his legacy will be?

Ms. HARJO: Well, his legacy will be that he was a standup guy, that he always had the good of the people in mind and that he always spoke out very forcefully against any injustice, and especially the kinds that - of injustices that impose emotional violence on our children and belittle us and make us feel smaller.

MARTIN: Thank you so much for that.

Suzan Shown Harjo is a writer and president of the Morning Star Institute, a native rights group based in Washington. She was kind enough to join me here in the studio. Hope you'll come back and see us.

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