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Pat Bellanger: A half century of fighting for Indigenous rights

Though she often escaped the public eye, her work survives through her children and community, the attendees of survival schools, and the children protected by the Indian Child Welfare Act.

Pat Bellanger
Photo by Dick Bancroft
Pat Bellanger, ca. 1977
Patricia Joyce Bellanger was born on Feb. 13, 1943, and raised with her siblings on the Leech Lake Ojibwe reservation by her parents, Veronica Rice and William Bellanger. Her Ojibwe name was Awanakwe, which means “water woman.” As she grew up in the town of Onigum, the divide between white and Native communities was clear, but her parents warned Bellanger and her siblings against contact with their traditional Ojibwe neighbors: “(W)e were told we couldn’t even look at ’em when they walked down the street, walked down the road at Onigum: Don’t look at ’em. Because they were witches, and they had all this power.” Despite this upbringing, Bellanger grew up to become a fierce advocate for Native people after she moved to the Twin Cities to attend the University of Minnesota in the 1960s. It was during this time that she became a founding member of the American Indian Movement (AIM).

Although she received less attention than the men who were the public face of AIM actions, like the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973, Bellanger played an equally crucial role behind the scenes. Much of her work in AIM focused on family and education advocacy in the Twin Cities. In the 1960s and 1970s, U.S. authorities were taking Native children from their families and placing them in foster care, often because the families had difficulties keeping their children in public school — where non-Native students and teachers harassed and discriminated against them. Native children were frequently placed in white families and removed completely from their tribes.

When it became apparent that fighting familial displacement wouldn’t solve the root of the problem, Bellanger and fellow AIM members formed Heart of the Earth Survival School (initially called AIM Survival School) in Minneapolis in January of 1972. Heart of the Earth employed parents and members of surrounding Indigenous communities and successfully worked to revitalize culture, even with little funding in its early years. As a survival school—the first of its kind—it provided a safe, welcoming, educational environment for Native students and incorporated traditions into class time.

Bellanger worked at the Red School House, a survival school founded in St. Paul in April of 1972, as a math and English teacher. She also wrote articles of incorporation and funding proposals, lobbied for donations of educational supplies, and organized a board of directors. There is no clear record of when Bellanger left her role as an educator, but the Red School House remained open until 1995, and Heart of the Earth until 2008.

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In 1977, Bellanger spoke at a United Nations conference in Geneva, Switzerland. She charged the U.S. government with experimenting on Indigenous children without the consent of parents; allowing hospitals to provide Indigenous people with placebos instead of treatment and child snatching — paying white families to adopt Indigenous children removed from their families by force or coercion. Bellanger drew on her own experience with authorities in St. Paul attempting to take away her daughter, Lisa: “When I refused to hand her over, I was forced to sign a paper saying I would never ask the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs for any assistance for my child. In other words, she lost all tribal rights, including education and welfare help.” The U.S. government denied these charges, but Bellanger and many others continued to speak out. Congress responded by enacting the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978, giving tribal governments jurisdiction over children living on reservations.

After helping to found Women of All Red Nations (WARN, a Native women’s advocacy organization) in 1974, Bellanger called out uranium mining companies for making Native women infertile, linking areas where mining had occurred on Dakota land to infertility rates in that area. “You must understand,” she explained in a 1979 interview, “that there’s pollution control, environmental controls, in every state of the union. But they allow different, higher radiation levels on reservations because they are federal land, not state controlled. … It’s genocide, what they are doing.”

Bellanger’s continuous, passionate advocacy for Native women and children earned her the name “Grandmother AIM.” In the 1990s and 2000s, she worked as a paralegal in the Twin Cities Legal Aid Society and continued her efforts on a local level by organizing protests and responding to Native health crises. She worked for the Indian Health Board before co-founding the Native American Community Clinic in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis in 2003.

On April 2, 2015, Bellanger passed away, survived by her son and daughter as well as six grandchildren.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.