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 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.
As for Colorado AIM's demands, Temple shrugs them off, and he's equally unreceptive to dialoguing with Morris and company. "I don't see the value of a meeting," he says -- and his pessimism is supported by historical precedent. The Rocky and Colorado AIM engaged in détente-oriented sit-downs circa the 1990s, but they got bogged down over issues such as AIM's insistence that the paper confess to wrongdoing related to Sand Creek. Morris claims editor Carroll told him at the time that the Rocky "doesn't apologize" for happenings in the distant past, yet it did so in a 1993 editorial about Tom Horn, a Wyoming bounty hunter who was executed ninety years earlier. (Back in the day, the Rocky had lobbied for Horn to swing, but the jury in a contemporary retrial found him not guilty.) Carroll, who points out that the Horn editorial was only "half serious," doesn't believe he would have made this statement, since he "didn't speak for the paper." Still, he characterizes the notion of "apologizing for something that happened way more than a century ago, when other people were responsible" as "ludicrous."
With the Rocky unwilling to talk, Colorado AIM-ers met earlier this month to mull over what to do next about l'affaire Deloria. A boycott was among the actions on the table, but in the end, they took a more mysterious path. Spokeswoman Carol Berry says, "We plan to make the racist policies of the newspaper clear throughout Indian country."
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Berry declines to elaborate, so it's impossible to know precisely what Colorado AIM has in mind. Even so, one thing's clear: This is one relationship that even Dr. Phil couldn't fix.
Two-timed: On December 6, the Denve Post divulged the story told by inmate Eric Williams about the alleged death of missing Aurora tot Aaroné Thompson, while its December 7 issue contained the revelation that CU football coach Gary Barnett would soon be put out of fans' misery. But this impressive pair of breaking-news blockbusters might say as much about the Rocky's work as it does about the Post's. After all, the Rocky didn't endear itself to Aurora authorities when it recently convinced Aaron Thompson and Shely Lowe, Aaroné's father and his girlfriend, to sit for interviews they won't give to local cops, and its tough CU reporting has undoubtedly made certain university sorts uncomfortable. So did the knowledgeable insiders who spoke with the Post do so in part to spite the Rocky?
Rocky editor John Temple neither endorses nor dismisses such speculation; he prefers to talk about the Post's double-bagger as proof that editorial competition remains fierce nearly five years after the Denver dailies' business operations were linked by a joint operating agreement. But when he's asked if he looks upon the Post's scoops as backhanded compliments to the Rocky, he answers "No" so quickly that it's a miracle he doesn't sprain his tongue.
That's taking your licks.