While Americans celebrated news of Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALs last spring, Clyde Bellecourt was disturbed by one detail of the story: the SEALs’ code name for bin Laden was “Geronimo.”
”They compared the world’s worst terrorist to one of the greatest chiefs in the world,” Bellecourt told a crowd of about 70 people Saturday in Spokane.
Bellecourt, a co-founder of the American Indian Movement and current national director of the group, demanded an apology from President Barack Obama for the Geronimo reference during a United Nations meeting last year. No apology has yet come, and Bellecourt said Saturday that the incident was just the latest in a centuries-long history of disregard toward American Indian culture.
“They only use us as mascots,” he said. “They use us when they kill people.”
The American Indian Movement was founded in 1968 in Minneapolis and during the 1970s rose to national prominence for the hard line its members took while fighting for American Indian rights. Bellecourt organized a march on Washington, D.C., in 1972 that led to an occupation of Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters. In 1973, he helped stage a protest in Wounded Knee, S.D., that resulted in a 71-day standoff with federal authorities.
Later, he worked with indigenous people from other parts of the world at the United Nations to bring their grievances to an international stage. Those efforts resulted in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which the U.S. did not initially support when the U.N. adopted it in 2007. The Obama administration has since said it supports the declaration.
Bellecourt said America’s history of breaking treaties with tribes and forcing Indians to abandon their culture continues to have repercussions today, among them high dropout rates, high suicide rates and poor health.
He attributed the high rate of diabetes on reservations to Native Americans replacing a diet of meat and berries with “white flour, white sugar, white salt, canned chicken and government cheese.”
And he said the American government continues to support regimes that violently repress indigenous people, as it did during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war. During that war, tens of thousands of Mayans were executed by government security forces, a U.N. report found.
“Don’t tell me you’re not responsible,” he told the crowd, saying many consider atrocities against native people a thing of the past. “Don’t tell me about your grandpa. We still do it today.”