Thunder Before the Storm in Belfast by Gerry Adams
The drumbeat and the chant echoed across the emptiness of Milltown Cemetery. Despite our heavy coats, the January cold leeched through to the bone. Margaret and Alfie Doherty, the parents of hunger striker Kieran Doherty; Jim Daly, whose wife Miriam – a member of the National Smash H-Block Armagh Committee - was assassinated by the UDA in 1981; and myself, Alex Maskey and others were at the Belfast Republican plot. So was Maura, sister of H Block hunger striker Joe McDonnell.
It was 1985 and we were accompanying a delegation of Native American Indians from the American Indian Movement (AIM). They were in Ireland to ‘see the situation – political and cultural …’ The delegation laid a wreath at the graves of our Patriot Dead and chanted the national anthem of AIM to the beat of their drum.
Their purpose in traveling to Ireland was to forge solidarity links and to make the connection between two struggles for freedom. Among the AIM delegation was Clyde Bellacourt (Thunder before the Storm – Nee-gon-we-way-we-dun). He was a co-founder of AIM in 1968. It was established to highlight police violence and discrimination in housing, education and employment against Native Americans. ‘Like the Irish people we have had to fight against cultural genocide’ said Clyde.
The day after our visit to Milltown the delegation traveled to Derry where they took part in the Bloody Sunday commemoration and laid a wreath at the monument for the 14 people killed by the British Parachute Regiment. The delegation held a spiritual service at the Bloody Sunday monument where they sang and played their drum in remembrance of the civil rights dead. Clyde explained that they had come ‘to pay respects to people who had given their lives for peace, equality and liberty in their homeland, the aspirations for which American Indians were struggling in their homeland.’
The delegation also took time to visit republican POWs in Armagh Women’s prison and in Long Kesh.
Clyde and his friends – Mel Youngbear, John Brown, Conrad Hisgun, Yvonne Swan, Amos Owns and Floyd Westerman (Red Crow) – were in Ireland representing the Dakota, Lakota and Anishinaab nations.
In his memoir, Clyde wrote of the experience of his people: ‘Indian people had no legal rights centers, job training centers, community clinics, Native American studies programs or Indian child welfare statutes … We were prohibited from practicing our spirituality. It was illegal to be in our country. The Movement changed all that."
Gerry Adams, Clyde Bellcourt, Alex Maskey, Pat Kelly, John Brown, Amos Owens
and Floyd Westerman (L-R)
I was reminded of all this when the news broke that Clyde had died at his home in Minneapolis. He was 85. In a column several weeks ago I appealed to the US President to release Leonard Peltier on compassionate grounds. Leonard was a friend and a contemporary of Clyde.
They were both involved in the occupation of Wounded Knee, to highlight the plight of the native people. Two FBI officers were killed during that incident and Leonard was convicted in 1977 of their murder, a charge he has consistently denied. He has been in prison for almost 45 years.
In 2006 Leonard spoke of the similarity and empathy between the Irish and Indian struggles. In words that Clyde would have endorsed he said:
‘When Bobby Sands died on May 5, 1981, millions of people from around the world joined their voices together to condemn the British government that allowed him to perish. I joined my voice to theirs.
I fasted in solidarity with the Hunger Strikers for forty days during that dreadful year. Fasting is something that I have done many times, when I was a free man while participating in our sacred Sun Dance.
The sufferings of our relations in Ireland are pains that we as Indian people know all too well. Our suffering, our fasting and our struggling links us together with a common bond.
That is why I say to you, there in Ireland, you are my relatives. As your relative, let me join my thoughts, tears, and prayers with yours as you commemorate your fallen, especially those who died on Hunger Strike in 1981.
My family and your families, my pain and your pains, my peoples struggle and the struggles of your people are all connected. We truly are all related.’
Bobby Sands knew this. In his amazing poem The Rhythm of Time he remembers
‘It died in blood on Buffalo Plains,
And starved by moons of rain,
It’s heart was buried in Wounded Knee,
But it will come to rise again.’
Clyde Bellacourt also understood this affinity that grows between people who suffer oppression and struggle for justice and for their rights. He was a champion of his people. He had the courage and determination to take a stand against a system that was shaped to degrade and diminish their humanity. All of us who met Clyde were deeply impressed by his commitment to his activism.
To Clyde’s wife Peggy and his daughters Susan and Tanya, his sons Little Crow and Wolf and his many grandchildren and great grandchildren I extend the condolences of Irish republicans.