She leaves behind family, friends, and a commitment to justice that will never fade. A Leech Lake Ojibwe woman, she participated in Sundances, Sweat Lodge ceremonies and was a member of the Midé Lodge.
A woman of tradition and culture, she guided others when she felt they needed help. She and I met when we took part in the 1996 Spring Clemency Tour for Leonard Peltier, but her story begins many years before then. The fiery daughter of Irene (Wilson) Bellanger, she was born into the Bear Clan on October 28, 1937 in Cass Lake, Minnesota and given the name, Makoonz Equay (Little Bear).
MJ, as her family and friends knew her, was a co-founder of the American Indian Movement. She wore her traditional name, showing a fearless attitude and commitment to cultural continuity as Jason Elias of Minneapolis AIM said, “She wasn’t afraid of anyone, she would pull men aside and set them straight.”
MJ was active with AIM for the majority of her life, taking part in the Longest Walk in 1978, and prior to that she was at Alcatraz advocating for women and children. MJ was also a powerful advocate for women’s issues and worked to keep Native children in their communities.
“MJ made the determination of who we were going to represent. We wouldn’t represent dope dealers, prostitutes, black on black or Indian on Indian,” said Clyde Bellecourt, the White Earth Ojibwe AIM co-founder. “She sure spoke up for women. If there was an issue dealing with women, I’d always take MJ with me… She was really loved within the community. She went to Alcatraz, when they called us to help them and put security into place for them. She went with us to help with the women and the children. She wanted to do something with our children separated from homes, families. Children not even knowing [from] whence they came [or] who their parents were. I called it Parental Termination of Rights. She got involved to protect our children, to keep our children in their homes, to help our unwed mothers. She took on that whole issue.”
Bellecourt talked about MJ’s sense of humor, “Something not a lot of people knew was that she had dentures. She would give talks and she would get so fired up that her teeth would go bouncing out. She would go on talking as if nothing happened. When she was done talking she’d walk out and lean down on her way, pick them up and go outside, and we’d all laugh together once we got outside.”
Michael Davis, a federal judge for the District of Minnesota, who MJ befriended, attended the wake and told Bellecourt, “We lost a tremendous warrior here, when we lost Mary Jane Wilson. If it wasn’t for people like Mary Jane Wilson, I wouldn’t be here.”
Chippewa/Potowatomi singer Star Nayea also met MJ in 1996 on the Spring Clemency Tour and shared the advice MJ gave her those many years ago, “You know what's wrong with our people today, we all worry ourselves about all the things we cannot singlehandedly change. If each one of us were to stand up, with arms extended out from our sides, turn in a full complete circle, then think about all that is within that circle, all that is within our reach is all we should be worrying ourselves with. Taking care of that which we can physically touch, reach out and change together. That’s the best advice I’ve ever heard. I cherished MJ on a different level of respect that day and I earnestly attempt to share her wisdom, as I live the way she suggested. Mary Jane Wilson was a true warrior who didn't dwell or worry about defeat.”
MJ’s wisdom resonated through all she did. Reaching women such as myself and Nayea, guiding, cajoling, and scolding as needed. She was passionate about protecting our rights and lived her passion through AIM, helping Native people across the country and indigenous people across the world.
Her adopted granddaughter, Frybread said, “You tell them that she was 100 percent American Indian Movement that she never backed down from a fight.”
MJ is survived by her sisters, Beverly, Starr, Shirley, Stiyer and Darlene, and her brothers, Donald and Kenny, as well as many grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces, nephews and other extended family and the vast network of friends she had from around the globe.