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CIVIL WARS

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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.

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Steve Jackson