Longform

CIVIL WARS

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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.'"

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Steve Jackson