Bellecourt had been struggling with complications of pneumonia and diabetes when he died at Abbott Northwestern Hospital. Family members say his health deteriorated after a recent trip to Venezuela, where he met with president Hugo Chavez as part of his work with the American Indian Movement.
Bill Means, who has known Bellecourt since the late '60s, says he was more committed than ever to the fight for Indian rights.
"Matter of fact, he was talking, before he got real sick, he was talking about all the work he felt he still had to do and that he wanted to do as soon as he got out of the hospital," Means says.
Means is director of the Opportunities Industrialization Center of Minnesota and a co-founder of the U.N. Working Group on Indigenous Populations. He has been on the Grand Governing Council of the American Indian Movement since 1972.
He says Vernon, whose Ojibwe name was WaBun-Inini or Daybreak Man, was a master communicator.
"He had a, shall we say, a special gift for communication with people from all walks of life, from the grassroots people all the way to various government leaders," Means says. "But as a friend he was loyal. He was probably one of the hardest working men I've ever known, and he just created a trail of goodwill wherever he went."
Means says Bellecourt's passion lately was focused on fighting stereotypical sports mascots through the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media. He was planning to protest at the Cleveland Indians game next week.
Bellecourt was arrested in Cleveland for mascot protests during the 1997 and 1998 World Series. Charges were dropped the first time, and he was never charged in the second case.
Bellecourt grew up in White Earth before moving to the Twin Cities. He was a hairstylist and owned a number of hair salons in St. Paul and in Denver before joining the American Indian Movement.
Bellecourt's brother Clyde co-founded AIM in 1968, and together the brothers organized some of the most important Indian protests in American history.
Vernon was spokesman and fundraiser during the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee on South Dakota's Pine Ridge reservation. In 1972, he was a negotiator during the Trail of Broken Treaties caravan occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington.
Since Wounded Knee, Bellecourt became the leader of AIM's international work. He made several controversial trips overseas, including a meeting with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
Photojournalist Dick Bancroft was a close friend and collaborator of Bellcourt's. He documented the American Indian Movement for more than three decades and was known as AIM's official photographer.
Bancroft says Bellecourt was known for his ceaseless energy and commitment to his work.
"People just really moved towards him because of his energy and enthusiasm and his passion. He never wavered from that, he was totally consistent," says Bancroft.
Bancroft credits AIM's work with helping to spread cultural pride among generations of Indians. He says it's also had a lasting impact on him personally.
"The genocide of the native peoples in the Americas, and particularly the United States, was vicious and planned to get rid of these savages and make Indians white like us. That was the struggle, and it went on and on and on, and they are still here," says Bancroft. "And Vernon Bellecourt helped me see this by taking me by the hand and putting me on an airplane and saying, 'Come on, we've got to go there. We've got to talk to these people.'"
Bellecourt is survived by his companion Janice Denny, and ex-wife Carol Ann Bellecourt. He is also survived by Lyna Hart, mother of two of his children, as well as five children, 10 grandchildren and two great-grandsons.
There will be a wake Monday afternoon at All Nations Church in Minneapolis. On Tuesday, Bellecourt's body will be transported to White Earth in northwestern Minnesota for a second wake and funeral.