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Bellanger, Pat (1943–2015)

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Pat Bellanger, ca. 1977

Pat Bellanger, ca. 1977. Photograph by Dick Bancroft; used with the permission of the estate of Dick Bancroft.

Pat Bellanger was an Ojibwe activist and a cofounder of the American Indian Movement (AIM) who spent over fifty years fighting for Indigenous rights on a national and local level. 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 (1978).

Patricia Joyce Bellanger was born on February 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, US 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.

In 1977, Bellanger spoke at a United Nations conference in Geneva, Switzerland. She charged the US 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 Indigeous 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 US Bureau of Indian Affairs for any assistance for my child. In other words, she lost all tribal rights, including education and welfare help.” The US 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.

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“4th Annual Minnesota Indian Family Awareness Conference.” Ni Ma Mi Kwa Zoo Min, October 1, 1989.

Associated Press. “Pact ‘Fell Short’ for Indians.” Capital (Annapolis, Maryland), April 7, 1973.

––––– . “U.S. Experimented on Indian Children.” Daily News (Port Angeles, Washington), September 22, 1977.

––––– . “Agency Denies Using Indians for Research Without Approval.” Minneapolis Tribune, September 23, 1977.

Davis, Julie L. Survival Schools: The American Indian Movement and Community Education in the Twin Cities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Furst, Randy. “Pat Bellanger, Prominent Indian Activist from Minneapolis, Dies.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 3, 2015.

Glassman, Betsy. “Forum on Uranium Hosted by Fond du Lac Reservation.” Ba-Bash-Ki-Mini-Ti-Gog II, no. 4 (October 1980), 1 and 3.

“Leah Carpenter, Attorney At Law.” Ni Ma Mi Kwa Zoo Min, September 1, 1990.

Melroe, Kris. “On the Edge of Extinction.” Off Our Backs 9, no. 5 (May 1979): 8–9.

“Outstanding Minnesota Feminists to Receive Awards.” Native American Press/Ojibwe News, April 15, 1994.

NiiSka, Clara. “Physicians Fired from IHB to Open New Clinic.” Native American Press/Ojibwe News, August 16, 2002.

“Pat Bellanger.” Women of Minnesota: Biographies & Sources / A Production of Minnesota Women’s History Month. St. Paul: Minnesota Women’s History Month, Inc., 1991. Available at the Minnesota Historical Society library as F605 .W85 1991.

“Pat Bellanger, 1943–2015.” Votes for Women: Learn About These Extraordinary Women. Minnesota Historical Society.

Perry, Suzanne. “A Top Concern: The Children.” Minneapolis Tribune, July 14, 1979.

Related Images

Pat Bellanger, ca. 1977
Pat Bellanger, ca. 1977
Lisa Bellanger
Lisa Bellanger
Pat Bellanger
Pat Bellanger
IITC at the United Nations
IITC at the United Nations
IITC at the United Nations
IITC at the United Nations
Pat Bellanger with Vince Hill, Dr. Lydia Caros, and Dr. Carol Krush
Pat Bellanger with Vince Hill, Dr. Lydia Caros, and Dr. Carol Krush

Turning Point

In the early 1960s, Bellanger moves from the Leech Lake Reservation of Ojibwe to St. Paul. She becomes involved with other Native activists and co-founds the American Indian Movement (AIM) in 1968.



Bellanger is born in Cass Lake, Minnesota, on February 13.

ca. 1961

Bellanger moves to St. Paul to attend the University of Minnesota.


The American Indian Movement (AIM) is formed, with Bellanger as a founding member.


In January, Bellanger and other AIM members create the AIM Survival School at 1337 East Franklin Avenue.


Bellanger participates in AIM’s occupation of Wounded Knee in South Dakota and represents the movement in press interviews.


AIM Survival School changes its name to Heart of the Earth Survival School.


Bellanger becomes a co-founder and board member of the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC), which works for Indigenous sovereignty and protection of Indigenous rights.


Bellanger speaks at the United Nations’ International NGO Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas in Geneva, Switzerland.


In September, Bellanger helps found Women of All Red Nations (WARN), an advocacy group for Native women.


On November 18, the US Congress enacts the Indian Child Welfare Act, a law championed by Bellanger and other Native activists that gives tribal governments more control of the custody of children living on reservations.


On September 17, Bellanger speaks as a representative of AIM and WARN at a forum on uranium mining hosted by the Fond du Lac Reservation.


Bellanger attends the fourth annual Minnesota Indian Family Awareness Conference. She gives a presentation on “Working with Adolescents.”


Minneapolis Community College (later MCTC) gives Bellanger an award for her leadership on the board of the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC).


Bellanger and others establish the Native American Community Clinic in response to being terminated by the Indian Health Board.


Bellanger dies on April 2. She is buried in Onigum, Minnesota.