AIM, Fire

The American Indian Movement targets the Rocky.

The Rocky Mountain News and the American Indian Movement of Colorado are a match made in hell. The Rocky's been consistently critical of Colorado AIM's position regarding Denver's annual Columbus Day Parade and has printed enough words attacking longtime AIM provocateur Ward Churchill to fill a Harry Potter book. Meanwhile, Colorado AIM contends that the Rocky carries a stain of anti-Native American prejudice that can be traced back to its Wild West origins; in an 1863 editorial, the paper described the Ute people as "a dissolute, vagabondish, brutal and ungrateful race" that "ought to be wiped from the face of the earth."

Relations between these two organizations could hardly be more strained. But during the past month, matters deteriorated even further, with Colorado AIM picketing the paper and calling for the firing of editorial-page editor Vincent Carroll. Not that anyone would know from reading the Rocky, which hasn't printed any of the particulars.

The latest dispute began shortly after the November 13 death of author and scholar Vine Deloria Jr. , who was "the equivalent of Thurgood Marshall, Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King rolled into one in the eyes of the Indian world," according to Glenn Morris, a Colorado AIM leader. Deloria's passing was cited by publications such as the New York Times and prompted a remembrance from syndicated columnist Clarence Page. Locally, the Denver Post offered a laudatory editorial and an obituary that was plugged on page one, whereas the Rocky positioned its obit in a bottom corner of page 6 -- placement that Morris finds highly questionable. He was much more upset, however, by a subsequent item by Carroll, who disparaged Deloria tributes that ignored the "wacky nature of some of his views." To Morris, this thesis is objectionable on its face, but the disrespect was compounded because it appeared on November 18, hours before Deloria's memorial service and burial in Golden.

Vine Deloria addressing an audience circa 1971.
Denver Public Library Western History Collection
Vine Deloria addressing an audience circa 1971.

"Vine died almost a week earlier, and Carroll had all that time to write something critical about him -- but he waited until the day of his funeral," Morris says. "What other community would put up with something like that?"

To express their displeasure, Colorado AIM representatives phoned Rocky editor/publisher/president John Temple's office "for five days straight," by Morris's count, without receiving a return call. In addition, Colorado AIM issued a November 20 press release announcing that a protest would take place in front of the Rocky offices the following morning and listing several demands. The group called for Carroll's firing, a "full editorial-page column" to refute Carroll's take on Deloria, a public apology to Deloria's family, and the establishment of a monthly column "to publicize indigenous perspectives on topical issues of importance." Finally, Morris and company demanded that the Rocky issue an apology "for its role in inciting and celebrating the Sand Creek Massacre," an 1864 assault on a peaceful Cheyenne camp in which at least 163 men, women and children were murdered and mutilated.

Morris and prominent AIM figures such as Russell Means were present at the November 21 demonstration, but there's disagreement over how many others joined them. Morris insists that about fifty folks came and went over the course of the event, while Carroll, who says he looked out a Rocky window at the assemblage after he "heard the drums," estimates the total at around twenty. Whatever the case, the rally generated little press coverage. Morris says staffers from the Post, the Associated Press, Reuters and the Rocky stopped by. But only the Post reported on the episode, and it did so in quizzical fashion, putting a snapshot of the protesters online November 28, a full week later.

Nevertheless, Deloria's name wound up in the Rocky twice more that week. The November 25 edition of "Denver Square," Ed Stein's homegrown comic strip, made an allegedly humorous attempt to equate Deloria's views with those of Congressman Tom Tancredo. And two days earlier, the paper printed a letter sent by University of Michigan professor Philip Deloria, Vine's son, about Carroll's "wacky" column. "It seems unworthy of the News -- and egregiously so -- to offer such a nasty little comment on the day when Indian people from around the country were arriving en masse to grieve," the younger Deloria maintained.

Editor Temple acknowledged this point in a certified letter November 22 to Colorado AIM, which he says was sent in response to an AIM e-mail, not the protest. "I agree that the timing of Mr. Carroll's item was unfortunate, and he has told Mr. Deloria's son as much," Temple wrote. Carroll confirms that he sent Philip an e-mail in which "I let him know I hadn't realized Friday would be the funeral, and if I had, I wouldn't have included it in my column of that day."

Should the Rocky have admitted this publicly? Temple doesn't think that was necessary, even if the column's date of publication was regrettable, since he considers Carroll's comments to be well within the boundaries of acceptable discourse. "I'm a believer in free speech," he allows, "and I think it's important that we live in a society where there can be honest and robust commentary about important figures such as Vine Deloria." Likewise, he feels that the decision not to write about the picket party was correct: "It's not unusual to have people protest us, and I don't believe the editors who saw it thought it was a significant enough event to report. The lack of coverage by other media outfits suggests to him that this opinion was widely shared.

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