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CIVIL WARS

THE FURY FLIES AS INDIAN ACTIVISTS TAKE AIM AT EACH OTHER.

By the late 1970s most of AIM's leadership was either on the run, facing prosecution or already in prison. Between 1973 and 1976 Means was charged with 37 felonies and three misdemeanors for such crimes as rioting, weapons charges and assault on law enforcement officers. He was cleared 39 times and convicted once, for contempt of court, serving a short sentence in the South Dakota State Penitentiary.

In 1979 the national AIM office in Minneapolis was dissolved in favor of local autonomy for all chapters. The Bellecourt brothers nonetheless continued to refer to themselves as national leaders of AIM.

In Colorado, AIM languished. Active membership in the state chapter dwindled to half a dozen people, and the group was meeting only sporadically when Glenn Morris arrived on the scene.

Morris had first come to Denver as a high school student, arriving from Phoenix, where he had been asked by Vernon Bellecourt to help the Colorado chapter coordinate food and clothing supplies for the besieged AIM members at Wounded Knee. He went on to graduate from Denver's East High School, sandwiching his studies around his AIM activities.

Morris wound up back in Colorado after he was offered a teaching job at CU-Denver, and in 1984 was appointed co-director of Colorado AIM by the chapter's elders, along with Ward Churchill, a recent arrival from South Dakota who had made a name for himself giving pro-AIM lectures at Black Hills State College.

Just how Churchill became a member of AIM back in 1972 remains in dispute more than twenty years later. An Illinois native of English and Swiss-German descent who by his own reckoning is one-sixteenth Cherokee, Churchill says he joined AIM at Clyde Bellecourt's invitation after attending a Bellecourt rally at the University of Illinois. Bellecourt says he doesn't remember any such invitation. But by the time Churchill joined Morris at the helm of the Denver chapter, he was no stranger to Bellecourt and other national leaders.

In 1983 Churchill and Dace Means, younger brother to Russell, had attended a human rights conference in Libya on behalf of the International Indian Treaty Council, a group formed by AIM to advocate for Indian rights at the international level. At the conference, the pair met with Libyan dictator Mu'ammar Qaddafi. Churchill caused a stir back in the United States by making the strange declaration that "AIM has not requested arms from the Libyan government."

Churchill wasn't the only AIM member dabbling in international politics. The early 1980s marked a growing affiliation between Colorado AIM and Russell Means, who caused his own stir with the Bellecourts in 1985. Returning from a three-week tour of Central America in November 1985, Means issued a statement calling for North American Indian "warriors" to volunteer to fight alongside Nicaraguan Indians against the Sandinista government. The Bellecourts were outraged, claiming that Means and his supporters were defying a position paper adopted by "AIM's Central Governing Council" that called for negotiations between the Sandinista government and the Indians. Vernon Bellecourt accused Means of playing into the hands of the CIA.

Means countered by forming what he called the New American Indian Movement. He openly chided the Bellecourts for siding with a "colonial government" against Indians and accused them of accepting money and travel expenses from the Sandinista government. Colorado AIM came out in support of Means.

The feud between the Bellecourts and the Colorado chapter soon drew attention from other Indian rights groups. Representatives of the Navajo tribe who had been opposing U.S. government intervention in a land dispute with the Hopis wrote a letter in April 1986 asking that AIM leaders resolve their conflicts before coming to Arizona for an International Indian Treaty Council conference. Noted the letter, "We are in support of neither the `New AIM' nor the `Old AIM.'"

Colorado AIM members responded by refusing to attend the treaty council conference, citing a lack of respect shown to its appointed leaders. Subsequently, the treaty council's board of directors voted to expel Morris and Churchill from its membership, citing their "extremely divisive and damaging activities." The Colorado leaders were notified of the decision in similar letters dated September 23, 1986, that were signed by Bill Means, the council's executive director, and Bill Wapepah, the director of information.

Churchill replied with a caustic letter that began with the salutation "Dear Double-Billing."

"I'll always use your missive to rebut anyone foolish enough to claim that Indians lack a keenly developed sense of humor, having seldom encountered wit acute enough to conceive of expelling me from an organization with which I've neither claimed nor desired affiliation in some eighteen months," he wrote. Churchill also took the opportunity to further goad the Bellecourts, bringing up Clyde's 1985 drug bust. ("My brother got hooked on drugs and then was entrapped by agents," says Vernon Bellecourt, adding that Clyde "was later welcomed back into the Indian community, where he is respected and revered.")

Colorado AIM, meanwhile, concentrated on political activities in its home state. Churchill and Morris negotiated with Denver officials to allow Indians exclusive use of the Tall Bull Memorial Grounds, a park south of Denver, won a concession from then-mayor Federico Pe¤a to create an American Indian Advisory Council for the mayor's office and wrote numerous opinion pieces for Denver newspapers.

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