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Glenn Morris, the outspoken co-director of the Colorado chapter of the American Indian Movement, reaches into a worn briefcase and pulls out a black binder. Bits of yellowed newspaper clippings and photographs poke out from behind the pages; a postcard of an Indian man wearing a feathered headdress clings to the inside sleeve.
"This is my father," Morris says as he opens the cover to the first page, on which a single black-and-white photograph is centered. It is a picture of a man with short, dark hair and dark eyebrows. Judging by the man's appearance, he could be of American Indian descent---or Hispanic, or Mediterranean.
After a moment, Morris, a 38-year-old professor of political science at the University of Colorado at Denver who over the past decade has doubled as one of Denver's best-known political radicals, closes the book and carefully lays it on the table. He's angry, he says, and doesn't particularly want to talk to a reporter. But he says he has no choice.
Morris and his compatriots--fellow college professor and Colorado AIM co-director Ward Churchill, and legendary Indian activist Russell Means, who once celebrated the nation's bicentennial by painting Plymouth Rock red--have made their share of enemies. They and their cohorts bullied Denver's Italian-American community into abandoning its traditional parade in 1992, in part through the threat of violence. They drew the pique of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith by co-opting the name for their own Native American Anti-Defamation League. But now the tables are turned: It's Morris, Churchill and Means who are under attack--this time from other Indians who claim, among other things, that Morris and Churchill are actually white men masquerading as Native Americans.
The National American Indian Movement, a Minneapolis group led by original AIM founder Clyde Bellecourt and his brother Vernon, in November labeled Morris and Churchill as Indian "wannabes" and expelled them from the organization. The Bellecourts have also called Morris and Churchill "pseudo-Indians" and "impostors."
So Morris, whose group has responded by blasting the Bellecourts as "hang-around-the-fort Indians" and "traitors," sits at a table in a trendy downtown coffee shop, his long brown hair parted in the middle, a silver buffalo pin stuck to his leather coat, offering a photograph of his father as proof of the Shawnee Indian heritage he claims.
It hurts, says Morris, a Harvard Law School graduate who once served as president of that school's American Indian Law Students Association. For more than twenty years Morris has been an advocate for Indian rights, often taking extreme positions that have set him far to the left of most Native Americans. In 1991 he was arrested alongside Churchill and Means for blocking the route of Denver's Columbus Day parade. Throughout the 1980s he was credited with turning a nearly catatonic Colorado AIM chapter into one of the most politically active chapters in the country.
But until now, says Morris, "No one--not the Bellecourts, not the schools--questioned whether I was Indian. That would only come after I didn't agree with everything [the Bellecourts] said."
This isn't the first time the leaders of the fractious AIM--best known for a 1973 standoff with federal authorities at the tiny South Dakota village of Wounded Knee--have warred among themselves. But in the past their disputes usually have been about tactics or politics.
This time the fight is nastier, more personal. A few months ago, Churchill, a 46-year-old associate professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder who seems to be the spark in the powderkeg, left a telephone message for Vernon Bellecourt calling him "a decrepit old fart." And both sides have been tossing back and forth the worst AIM insult of all: "agent provocateur" of the dreaded FBI or CIA.
Means, a longtime master of political theater who took his expressive talents to the big screen in the film remake of The Last of the Mohicans, remains his old bombastic self. In a recent interview, the 54-year-old activist alternated between vituperation ("Everyone hates Indians, including the people of Denver and Mayor Webb") and warmth (complaining about the length of time it takes to tie his braids as he gets older). Appointed the executive director of Colorado AIM in 1989, Means accuses his former comrades the Bellecourts of raising questions about who qualifies as a "real" Indian in order to rid themselves of their political opposition.
The Bellecourts deny Means's charges, contending that AIM's national board of directors has genuinely grown concerned that "non-Indians" such as Morris and Churchill have seized control of local AIM chapters and are making decisions that Indians should make.
"We're not racists," says Vernon Bellecourt, who actually helped form the Colorado chapter more than twenty years ago. "There are hundreds, if not thousands, of good, sincere white people working with us. They just don't pretend to be something they're not."
Bellecourt says Means has become a puppet of Churchill, who he hints may be a federal agent in disguise. Now he and the national AIM are demanding that the University of Colorado review Churchill's credentials as an Indian and bring him before an ethics committee to determine whether he received his tenure through deception--namely by "billing himself as an American Indian writer, scholar and artist." The university, says Bellecourt, should rid itself of "this man whose lies they've been bankrolling for the past ten years."