Longform

CIVIL WARS

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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.

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Steve Jackson