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."
Replies Churchill during an interview in his university office, "It ain't going to happen." A part-time painter who lost the ability to sell his work as "Indian art" after a 1990 federal law required Indian artists to prove their ethnic authenticity, Churchill whips off the dark glasses he's wearing and says, "See, green eyes. I have nothing to hide, unlike [rival artist] David Bradley, who wears his glasses to cover up his blue eyes."
Marilyn Decalo, a spokeswoman in the office of CU president Judith Albino, says the Bellecourts' complaint has been turned over to the university's lawyers for investigation. "We're still researching," she says. "The bottom line is that National AIM is concerned that a position that should be held by a Native American is held by a non-Indian. From our end, we need to determine if the position was designated for a Native American. And I can't answer that right now."
Morris, Means and Churchill contend that the real issue at hand is sovereignty--the right of local AIM members to decide who they will accept as fellow Indians and appoint as their leaders. In retaliation for the expelling of Morris and Churchill, leaders of AIM chapters from a dozen states--some of whom have also had their claims of Indian heritage questioned by the national faction--met in New Mexico last December and declared that they don't recognize any national authority.
According to Means, the group also "indicted" the Bellecourts and their followers on charges ranging from "high treason" to selling drugs to Indian youths, a reference to Clyde Bellecourt's 1985 arrest and subsequent guilty plea for selling LSD. The allegations, Means says, will be brought before an Indian "tribunal" this March in San Francisco.
Last week Vernon Bellecourt called the indictments ridiculous. "They aren't trying to conduct some objective tribunal," he said. "They've trumped up these charges and then proceeded to try me and my brother in the media."
On and on, back and forth it goes, until there's only one thing both sides agree on: The philosophical fratricide will further erode AIM's historically tenuous position with mainstream Indians.
According to U.S. Census figures for 1990, 27,776 American Indians or Alaskan Natives live in Colorado, more than 12,000 of them in the Denver metro area. Of that number, about 200 are estimated to belong to Colorado AIM.
But Indian groups in Denver steer away from commenting on the AIM squabble, citing the group's propensity for getting even. Says Mary Jo Dennis, of the Colorado Indian Commission, "We don't interact with AIM."
Al Bear Ribs, who helps organize spiritual activities at the Denver Indian Center on Morrison Road, says the constant in-fighting between the AIM factions detracts from what other Indian rights organizations are trying to accomplish.
"We need a lot of help at the Denver Indian Center," says Bear Ribs. "But when we call, people say, `Oh, you guys are always fighting, and we can't support that.' It's like in the old days, when whites saw that Indians were always fighting among themselves and said, `While they're doing that, we'll steal their land.'"
The American Indian Movement was founded in 1968 in Minneapolis by Dennis Banks, George Mitchell and Clyde Bellecourt. Its aim was fairly simple: the abolishment of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the establishment of Indian self-determination and a revitalization of cultural heritage. And AIM's leaders swore that they would accomplish these feats without taking money from the U.S. or any other government.
In 1970 a Colorado chapter was formed in Denver by Joe Locust and Vernon Bellecourt. And in Cleveland, Ohio, after initially distancing himself from the radicals of AIM, Russell Means, then an accounting student, founded a local chapter.
There was certainly no question about Means's heritage; his father was of Oglala-Crow-French-English descent, and his mother was a full-blooded Yankton Sioux. And it didn't take him long to make a name for himself within AIM--or to outrage most of the rest of the country. In 1970 Means and other Indians "captured" the Mayflower II, a sailing ship used to re-enact the original voyage of the Pilgrims; in June 1971 he led a brief "occupation" of the Mount Rushmore National Monument, an event he capped off by urinating on George Washington's head.
Throughout 1972 AIM consolidated its combative reputation, occupying a Nebraska town to demand justice for the killing of an Indian by two white men and briefly taking over the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C. At the forefront of each confrontation--or working behind the scenes to raise money and support--were Russell Means, Dennis Banks and the Bellecourts.
On February 27, 1973, about 200 lightly armed AIM supporters led by Means and Banks occupied the tiny village of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, where nearly 300 Lakota had been slaughtered by the U.S. Cavalry in 1890. They intended to hold a press conference the following morning to complain about alleged corruption within the Pine Ridge tribal government and other grievances. Instead they found themselves surrounded by law enforcement personnel of the federal and tribal governments.
For 71 days, AIM, whose members had been joined by the majority of the villagers, held out against the superior firepower. When the siege was over, two Indians were dead, dozens more had been wounded and the village was razed. Near the end Means turned himself in in exchange for an agreement to meet with White House officials, a deal on which the government later reneged.
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 Pea to create an American Indian Advisory Council for the mayor's office and wrote numerous opinion pieces for Denver newspapers.
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.
Means defended his friend in a February 18, 1993, "communique" emphasizing that Churchill had been unanimously "reaffirmed" as Colorado AIM's co-director--for the eighth time in the last four years. "This man has proven his loyalty and dedication," wrote Means, adding--just in case there was any remaining doubt--that "Colorado AIM does not recognize the existence or authority of a national office of AIM."
In a subsequent letter penned by Churchill, Colorado AIM refused to recognize national AIM's appointment of Fern Mathias and Carole Standing Elk as its western regional directors. And in keeping with the spirit of the dispute, Mathias and Standing Elk responded with a letter of their own. "Ward Churchill, who recently has begun to describe himself as a Creek/Cherokee, is in reality a member of neither the Creek Nation nor the Cherokee Nation," they wrote. "As a white man, it is inappropriate, offensive, and a violation of AIM's fundamental principle of Indian self-determination for Ward Churchill to identify himself as a member of AIM, let alone for him to publicly assert a leadership role in the Movement."
Vernon Bellecourt says most AIM chapters--including Colorado Springs--have sided with National AIM. Churchill, Morris and Means, he says, "will be isolated."
But Colorado AIM has shown no sign of surrender. Last year the local chapter reaffirmed a set of guiding principles stressing sovereignty, support, spirituality and sobriety, says Morris, and perhaps in answer to the accomplishments of National AIM, the Colorado chapter has also vowed to strengthen its efforts on such issues as youth, the elderly, housing and employment.
The group also has not lost its penchant for more public pursuits. Last October, Means and Morris celebrated the anniversary of stopping the Columbus Day parade by berating a small group of Italian-Americans who had rallied on the Capitol steps. Morris led a group to the Columbus statue, where he attached a cardboard sign that read, "Lies written in ink can never disguise facts written in blood." He then spit on the statue while a follower kicked over a wreath of flowers left by the Italian-Americans.
Denver's Al Bear Ribs, who used to be a member of AIM in South Dakota, says he doesn't agree with Colorado AIM's direction or with the leadership of Morris and Churchill, whom he says he considers to be white. However, he says he doesn't support the Bellecourt faction, either.
Instead Bear Ribs has formed his own organization, called the Native American Indigenous Council. "I don't really care what they do," he says of the two warring factions. "But all this arguing is getting nothing done. The Bellecourts and Means should either reconcile or get the hell out."
Judging from the "indictment" that Morris and Means helped orchestrate last December of the Bellecourts and their supporters, any such reconciliation is not close at hand. According to Means, the indictment for "high treason" and other sundry offenses was drafted only after a review of "overwhelming" evidence. Severe punishment is merited, he suggests, "but death would be too easy, and it is not the Indian way. The Indian way will be banishment."
Vernon Bellecourt, however, scoffs at what he describes as a melodramatic threat by Means, the activist movie star. "We only hope that [Russell] has just been duped by Churchill," he says. "Or that he has his head in Hollywood.
"We certainly won't be participating in that farce," Bellecourt adds. "But that's just Russell--everybody loves Russell. Hell, I love Russell. I just hate what he's doing.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.