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CIVIL WARS

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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.

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Steve Jackson