By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
In 1988 Ward Churchill snubbed the Bellecourts once again, publishing a book called Agents of Repression that attacked the FBI for conducting what he called the FBI's "secret wars against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement." The book lauded the accomplishments of Russell Means, Dennis Banks and others but mentioned Vernon Bellecourt only once, for having assisted in the formation of Colorado AIM. Clyde Bellecourt fared little better; other than the notation as a founder of AIM, his name generally appeared only in footnoted material.
On October 9, 1989, Colorado AIM announced a four-year program to target Columbus Day activities and the statue of Christopher Columbus in Civic Center park. Hundreds of AIM supporters attended a rally at the state capitol and marched to the Civic Center, where Russell Means, who had resigned his position with the Dakota AIM, poured blood on the Columbus statue.
Means was arrested for destroying public property, but he had what he wanted--national press attention. Shortly after the incident, Means's role in Colorado AIM was further solidified when he was asked to serve as the group's executive director and "international spokesman."
On Columbus Day 1991, Colorado AIM stepped up its protest by attempting to block the parade route. Means, Morris and Churchill were arrested, along with Margaret Martinez, who had recently established an AIM chapter in Colorado Springs. Six months later they were acquitted, setting the scene for what Colorado AIM considers its greatest triumph.
For months leading up to Columbus Day 1992, Colorado AIM warned that another parade could lead to violence. Attempts to reach a compromise failed, and it appeared the two groups were headed for a confrontation. On the day of the parade, the city prepared for a riot. Colorado AIM had mustered an estimated 2,500 supporters. But at the last minute the Italian-Americans--many of them elderly and afraid for their safety--called it quits. Means then led his own victory parade away from where the Italian-American contingent was "allowed" to rally on the Capitol steps.
The master of street theater had struck again.
Vernon Bellecourt says he's unimpressed by Colorado AIM's accomplishments. Stopping the parade "was about the only thing they've done," he says.
But Morris, Churchill and Means are proud of their status as the only AIM leaders in the country to have stopped a Columbus Day parade in its tracks. And they charge that the Bellecourts' questioning of Morris and Churchill's ethnic backgrounds is simply a jealous reaction to their success.
One supporter of Churchill and Morris is Colorado AIM member George Tinker, a professor at the Iliff School of Theology who is among those who accuse the Bellecourts of "racial cleansing." Tinker notes that one method the Bellecourts have used to determine who is or isn't a real Indian is tribal registries kept by the federal government since the 1800s. Those registries, Tinker says, are anything but complete.
Because of forced emigration and the scattering of the various Indian nations, many people with Indian heritage were never entered on the official rolls. As a result, nearly 2 million Indians are registered with the federal government, but millions more of both full and mixed blood were left off. If their claims are true, Morris and Churchill would fall into this category.
Morris contends that he is part Shawnee through his father, who was not enrolled as a tribal member but can identify family members who were. Churchill, who says he was initially met with skepticism by other AIM members because "I didn't look like I just stepped off a nickel," says there is Cherokee and Creek lineage in his family, though he concedes that his claim is "more ambiguous" than that of his colleague Morris. "It is just something that was common knowledge in my family," he says.
Means, meanwhile, says the national AIM faction's use of tribal enrollment data amounts to collaboration with the enemy. "There are only two other countries in the history of the world that have used similar criteria--Nazi Germany and South Africa," he says. "Since when do we need our oppressor's okay to say who we accept?"
Vernon Bellecourt says that such arguments are misleading. The U.S. government allows the tribes to say who belongs if the person in question isn't enrolled, he says. And tribal rolls are the basis on which Churchill in 1990 lost the ability to sell his paintings as "Indian" art. The federal legislation known as the Indian Arts and Crafts Act (co-sponsored by then-representative Ben Nighthorse Campbell) requires would-be Indian artists to prove that they are accepted members of a federally recognized tribe.
An angry Churchill criticized the law and its effect on several of his artist peers in a 1992 article that appeared in the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee newsletter (Peltier is in prison for the 1975 murder of two FBI agents during a gun battle on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota). In the same article, Churchill attacked David Bradley, a Santa Fe painter who was making a name for himself by "exposing" non-Indian "impostors."
Churchill's article touched off a new flurry of letter writing. Bradley shot back in the December 1992 edition of the newsletter, labeling Churchill a "pseudo-Indian" and "chief of the wannabes. The problem is that Ward Churchill is a white man who poses as a big bad radical `Indian' and gets paid very well to do so," wrote Bradley.