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Award-winning investigative journalist (and dad) Peter Gorman has spent more than 20 years tracking down stories from the streets of Manhattan to the slums of Bombay. Specializing in Drug War issues, he is credited as a primary journalist in the medical marijuana and hemp movements, as well as in property forfeiture reform. His work has appeared in over 100 national and international magazines and newspapers.

Peter Gorman's love affair with the Amazon jungle is well-known to people in the field. Since 1984 Mr. Gorman has spent a minimum of three months annually there generally using Iquitos
Peru as his base. During that time he has studied ayahuasca the visionary healing vine of the jungle with his friend the curandero Julio Jerena. He has collected artifacts for the American Museum of Natural History botanical specimens for Shaman Pharmaceuticals and herpetological specimens for the FIDIA Research Institute of the University of Rome. His description of the indiginous Matses Indians’ use of the secretions of the phyllomedusa bicolor frog has opened an entire field devoted to the use of amphibian peptides as potential medicines in Western medicine.



THE HIGH TIMES INTERVIEW: CLYDE BELLECOURT, FOUNDER OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN MOVEMENT

by Peter Gorman

Born on May 8, 1936, on the White Earth Chippewa Reservation in Northern Minnesota, Clyde Bellecourt grew up during an era when Indian culture, tradition and history were being systematically eradicated in an effort to assimilate Indians into America’s melting pot.

Rebellious as a youngster, he spent time in a State Training School,  reformatory and finally in Stillwater State Prison. But while at Stillwater, he became involved in an Indian self-help group and emerged from prison with a philosophy of self-determination that evolved into the formation of the American Indian Movement in 1968.

Known to most of America only as the militant organization responsible for the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, during its 25 year history, AIM, with Bellecourt as its National Director, has worked tirelessly to open schools, promote jobs programs, create youth organizations and confront systemic and individual racism and prejudice against Native Americans.

Bellecourt, who has four children and four grandchildren, resides in Minneapolis, where aside from his National AIM duties (last year he led the massive marches against the Atlanta Braves and the Minnesota Twins during the World Series over the tomahawk chop and racism and in sports and the media) he runs the AIM Peacemakers Center, a program for area youth.

 

CLYDE BELECOURT: Before we start, let me say I do not support the illegal use of marijuana, and my appearance in this magazine does not imply that I sanction that use. Marijuana has been used for centuries for religious and medicinal purposes and used that way there is nothing wrong with it. But when it’s used for pleasure it becomes a drug, and when it takes you away from your work and your responsibilities to your family it becomes a problem. I myself do not smoke it. I’m not a user of alcohol either, or prescriptive drugs. 

 

HIGH TIMES: Fair enough. Now, what was it like growing up on a reservation during the late 1930s and ‘40s? Were cultural traditions practiced during that period?

CB: No. It was not a good time to be an Indian. Native American traditions were all under fire. Indian language was forbidden in                                       the Federal boarding school systems, Indian religion was outlawed, and they forbid us to have Indian names or traditional marriages and so forth. Cultural and religious repression by the United States government had begun before the turn of the century and all of our mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, regardless of what tribe or nation we belonged to, went through that period of suffering and humiliation.

 

HT: So where did Native Americans learn about their traditions?

CB: It wasn’t until July, 1968, when the American Indian Movement was born here in Minneapolis, that we started formulating our own alternative education programs and teaching our young people—who were dropping out of the public school systems at a rate of 65 to 100% in some communities because their identity was being stripped from them—about their history, culture and spiritual values.

 

HT: How was the American Indian Movement, AIM, conceived?

CB: It’s roots go back to Stillwater State Prison. In 1962, while I was an inmate there—at that particular time I was in for a third-degree burglary—I ran into a young spiritual leader named Eddie Benton Benai. He was a full-blooded traditionalist from the Wisconsin Lakota Rails reservation who came from a family of medicine people and spiritual leaders. And he was approached by a young Irish case worker by the name of James Donahue who had done a study and found that Indian people were in institutions for more time for lesser crimes than other people, that Indian people never went into skills and technical trades, and that most of us were in for alcohol and narcotics cases. So he came up with the idea that if we could formulate some sort of Indian group to pull the Indian inmates together we could discuss these problems, and start looking at the future.

I was asked to become the co-chief of this organization, known as the Indian American Folklore Group, the first Indian studies program in America. What we did was trace people’s background and family trees, found out what tribe and clan they belonged to, and what the characteristics of those clans were. We began developing careers around those characteristics. Then we started getting Indian people into alcoholics anonymous and narcotics anonymous and getting them to go into skilled and technical training and to look at higher education. It was a tremendous program, a very successful program that’s still going on today.

 

HT: How important was that program for you?

CB: It was the turning point of my life. I spent about two years running the program with Mr. Benton Benai and I came out of prison with the philosophy of self-determination, that we Indians had to quit depending on the government, the churches and the offices of education to help us to change things. We had to make those changes ourselves.

I began preaching that philosophy to the two Indian organizations in Minneapolis at that time, telling people we had to start dealing with things like racism, poor housing and economic conditions for Indian people, treaty violations, the justice system and so forth, but nobody would listen. After three or four years we decided that since we couldn’t change the existing organizations we’d have to create our own.

The group we formed—which included people like Dennis Banks, George Mitchell, Annette O’Shea, and Harold Good Sky quite a few elders and a lot of youths—was called the Concerned Indian American Coalition. I was later elected chairman of the board, and in a couple of months time it became known as the American Indian Movement.

 

HT: What was AIM’s first order of business?

CB: We were basically doing the same things we had been doing in prison, only now it was out here. Our prophesies said that the Indian people would stand up again when the drum was heard, so the first thing we did was build a drum. Another thing we did was to create the AIM Street Patrol, composed of Indians and non-Indians, to start monitoring police racism and brutality in our community. We also started providing some legal services, out of which we formed the Legal Rights Center, which has served over 17,000 indigenous legal clients.

 Then, when the National Indian Education Association held it’s meeting here in Minneapolis the following year, we kind of took over and said we should develop our own schools and teach Indian culture and tradition and history along with the regular courses. Out of that effort we created the Hundred Years Survival School, the first Indian parental controlled education program in America.

 

HT: When did the American Indian Movement begin to gather momentum?

CB: In the early part of 1969 a confrontation was taking place outside of Denver. Indian people were picketing the Bureau of Indian Affairs because they refused to follow a law called the Indian Preference Act, which said that when an Indian and a non-Indian had the same qualifications for programs where money was being expended on Indian people, the Indian was supposed to be hired.

I was asked for assistance and I went in and explained that we could be picketing for the rest of our lives but that if we were going to get heard we needed to take control of the BIA building. So we staged a sit-in and chained the building shut. We held that building for four days, and in the process eight other offices were occupied across he country to show their support. Those were spontaneous occupations, unconnected to AIM. That launched a whole new era, and AIM chapters sprung up over night across the country.

 

HT: What AIM event first drew national attention?

CB: We were already getting media attention—of course they concentrated on my criminal background and painted us as militants instead of spending time on issues like racism, treaty violations and so forth—so people had heard of us. But in 1972, I led a caravan from the West coast across America, meeting with every tribe and Indian association along the way to develop a paper called The Trail of Broken Treaties which we carried to Washington D.C.. We intended to address the President and Congress and provide them with 20 bills that could be passed which would abolish the BIA and turn control of Indian affairs over to the Indian people.

When Nixon refused to meet with us we occupied the BIA. They surrounded us with members of something like 34 law enforcement agencies and Nixon finally sent a delegation to meet with us. They made promises that they would abide by the 20-point solution paper, present it to Congress, and formulate a special commission to look into this legislation. (NONE OF WHICH WAS DONE?)

When we got home the tribal governments put restraining orders on myself and several other AIM leaders to prevent us from going onto the reservations to explain what had taken place in Washington D.C. and expose the massive rip-off of Indian land and resources we’d discovered while there.

 

HT: You ignored those orders though, didn’t you?

CB: Yes, we did. Particularly when the brutality broke out on Pine Ridge. The Goon Squads working for the tribal government there were raping women and killing livestock, people were being murdered, and when the people at Pine Ridge couldn’t take that anymore they asked AIM to come in. We held a sort of two day red-ribbon grand jury hearing, during which we heard 1,500 individual complaints. After that the elders told us to do whatever was necessary to wake up the world to what was happening to Indian people. That led to the takeover of Wounded Knee in 1973. (See HIGH TIMES, Oct. 1992)

 

HT: It also was a focus point for the Indian renaissance, wasn’t it? Tell us about that.

CB: The US government has just released a study saying that one out of every six Indian children will contemplate or attempt to commit suicide this year, and that is because we have lost our spiritual base, our foundation. And when the American Indian Movement was born we knew that unless we were able to develop a strong spiritual base we would never survive or move forward as a people. So in 1972 AIM defied the ban against Indian religions. We just could not stand for that anymore, so we decided to hold a Sun Dance on the Rosebud Indian reservation. Thirty-eight of us danced at that Sun Dance, the first Indian people to pierce in something like 84 years. Since then, Sun Dances and other traditional spiritual practices have spread across America and Canada. So that was really the starting point of the Indian renaissance.

 

HT: Did you have any inkling how important that first Sun Dance would be for the movement?

CB: We knew that our strength lay in our tradition, culture and spirituality. We knew we had to get back to that. We thought through that Indians would be able to get away from alcohol and drug abuse. We could start bringing families together again. And we have. Today hundreds of thousands of people have gotten away from alcohol and drug abuse because they’ve gone back to traditional ways.

Unfortunately, the whole New Age movement is ripping that apart. Ripping us apart.

 

HT: How so?

CB: Indian religion is not just for Indian people. We recognize all four races of man and they’re welcome to come there, to pray, to become part of the whole effort.

But there’s a group I call shake ‘n bake shaman, teflon medicine men, who blink their eyes one day, have a vision and all of a sudden they claim they’re spiritual leaders and healers. They start exploiting innocent non-Indian people who are looking for some type of spirituality, giving them Indian names, charging money for supposedly Indian ceremonies. If you want to smoke the sacred pipe with them you have to pay so much money. If you want to go in a sweat lodge or sing with a water drum you’ve got to pay for that. It’s a direct affront to our religion.

 

HT: How does this hurt Indians?

CB: It weakens our way of life, our ceremonies and traditions. Right now, for instance, we’re seeking amendments to the Native American Religious Freedom Act, to put some teeth into it. But you have these wannabees useing peyote in ceremonies, trying to legalize it, and soon not even members of the Native American Church are going to be able to use it. It’s having a tremendously damaging effect on Native traditions.

 

HT: Have you let these people know your feelings?

CB: Several years ago, at our spiritual leader Philip Deere’s place in Muskogee, Oklahoma, a series of meetings were held on that. Spiritual leaders from all over the country met there with warriors and young people, and four separate warnings were put out around the world notifying not only would-be medicine people but even real Indian people who were holding Sun Dances and workshops and charging people for them that their behavior would no longer be tolerated. And after their fourth warning the elders turned the issue over to AIM and the warrior society of every nation to halt that type of exploitation. It was necessary that we did that, otherwise our real medicine men, our real healers would no longer be recognized. 

 

HT: What kind of action do you take to stop the people you call teflon medicine men?

CB: Their ceremonies can be disrupted and they can be exposed as frauds. They can be exposed for not really being an Indian, for not being endorsed by AIM, or trained by Leonard Crow Dog or any of the other stories they use to try to make money off people.

If someone wants to create their own way of life, that’s their perogative, as long as they don’t use Indian purification and Indian ceremonial ways to do it. But when you claim that you’re going to heal people, when you start having Sun Dances and ceremonies and putting a price tag on them, that’s when we have a problem with it. Our spiritual leaders don’t put a price tag on it.

 

HT: What about the legitimate Native American healers who get drawn into the New Age events. How does that happen?

CB: Economics. If someone offers money to some poor person who hasn’t a penny in their pocket it’s difficult for them to say no.

The exploitation of poor people—and particularly Indians—has been going on for 500 years here and will be going on a long time after I’m gone. But that doesn’t mean we have to sit by and allow it to happen. And we’re not going to. But the change can’t come from legislation or the media, it has to come from Indian people themselves. Self-determination is the battle cry of the American Indian Movement.

 

HT: To be self-determined you need solvency. Gambling is one of the answers. What’s your feeling about that?

CB: One of the things about sovereignty is that we have a right to do what we want to do. If we want to embrace gambling we can, and while I’m certainly not pro-gambling, pro-casino, if Indian people want to do that, that’s their right.

 

HT: What do you see wrong with casinos on reservations?

CB: In most places gambling has caused a division in the communities, pitting Indian people against one another. And outside interests, the people from Vegas and New Jersey, are the ones controlling many reservations today through gambling and jobs. Also, in a lot of these places taxes aren’t being paid on the gaming income, and I think that sooner or later the combination of those two things will lead to Senate Select hearings. They’ll say organized crime has taken control of these reservations and the Indians have given up self-determination, they havn’t paid their taxes, and they’re going to put them into receivership and take control of their resources, land that’s rich in coal, oil, uranium, gold, copper. So I look at gambling in many instances—not all, but many—as a form of termination.

 

HT: What about the scars left from the tribal rifts?

CB: Those will be there for a long time. I maintain that unless programs are developed from the gambling income to serve all the people, gambling can do more harm than good. But for a lot of people as long as they get their per capita check they don’t give a damn what the hell is going on.

 

HT: Is there an other way that money could be handled rather than just handing out money to individuals?

CB: On one reservation in northern Wisconsin people voted by referendum not to issue per capita checks, that all the money would go back into development. Now everybody there is guaranteed a job, anybody who wants to go to school has their higher education paid for, and they all have medical insurance. I think that’s great. That’s the way it should be, because everybody benefits.

 

HT: You’re coming now on AIM’s 25th anniversary. Did you think AIM would be functioning and well at 25?

CB: A lot of people thought that six months after we began no one would ever hear from us again. But is a movement, like the civil rights movement, not an organization. When we started talking about alternative education they thought the traditional educational programs would never endorse and support anything like that. But you and I know there’s been tremendous strides made. Special agencies have been developed within the government of the United states of America to deal with Indian issues, from education and jobs to set aside monies with HUD. And it was through the advocacy of AIM that that was brought about. And we feel proud about that.

 

HT: What’s the future for Native Americans?

CB: This generation that’s among us right now, these little children, they’re the seventh generation. Not just Indian children, but white, black, yellow and red. And our grandfathers said the seventh generation was where new spiritual leaders, medicine people, doctors, teachers, and our great chiefs would come from. I sincerely believe in that, and I tell our children every chance I get who they are and what generation they are.

 

HT: Are you happy with what you’ve accomplished?

CB: There is a spiritual rebirth, a renaissance going on that would not have happened had it not been for AIM. My grand children are able to be Indian today. They’re able to be proud, they’re able to sing Indian, go to ceremonies. I wasn’t allowed to do these things as a child. I would have been punished for them.

Here in Minneapolis there are over 50 Indian organizations that deal with health, education, housing, legal services, halfway houses, shelters, battered women treatment programs, alcohol and drug programs, you name it, we have it here. And that came about because of AIM, not only in this community but in communities around this country.

Of course, we still have a long way to go. The government spent almost two hundred years putting us in the condition we’re in and these changes ain’t going to come about over night. But they will come about. We believe in our prophesies, we believe in our elders, we believe in our spiritual leaders. And we know that if we continue on the path of the Red Road that we say we’re walking these changes will come about.

 

NOTE: A celebration of the 25th Anniversary of the AIM—which includes the 1993 AIM Conference, Pow Wow and Concert—will take place Sept. 1-6 at Fort Snelling State Park in Minneapolis/St. Paul. All interested parties are welcome to attend.

 

 

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