Bury My Heart

For years it has been whispered that the 1976 slaying of American Indian Movement activist Anna Mae Aquash was an inside job. Now a new rash of accusations aims squarely at local heroes Clyde and Vernon Bellecourt.

Clyde Bellecourt is floating down the road in his loaded brown 1983 Cadillac Eldorado. He wears an oversized red nylon jacket emblazoned with the logo of the American Indian Movement--a head in profile with two eagle feathers arranged to resemble the peace-sign gesture. His long black hair is pulled back in a ponytail. His face is broad, beefy, and hard to read unless he's smiling. Despite the handicapped parking permit dangling from the rear-view mirror--testament to ongoing problems from a 1987 heart attack--the 63-year-old remains a bearish, imposing presence.

Navigating the familiar streets of Minneapolis's Phillips neighborhood, Bellecourt pauses here and there to offer history lessons and point out landmarks. He rattles off the names and numbers with a fundraiser's practiced precision: There's the American Indian Opportunities and Industrialization Center, which offers job training and education programs to some 700 clients a year. The Legal Rights Center, which has provided services to some 30,000 indigent people since 1969. The Elaine Stately Peacemaker Center, which works with youth and gangs. And, just a short drive away, the Heart of the Earth School, a pioneering 260-student charter school where native kids learn about the pipe and the drum along with the three R's.

As he passes the Little Earth of United Tribes complex--the nation's first all-native urban housing project and, for a spell, his home--Bellecourt recounts a triumphant lawsuit that forced the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to fix the then-dilapidated townhomes and apartments. He smiles in recalling how the struggle was finally resolved in 1992, via a cordial dinner meeting with then-HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros. "Seven years in court," he says in his faraway train rumble of a voice, "and that's all it took. A 15-minute meeting."

Bellecourt has been navigating the halls of power for a long time now--and, even his harshest critics concede, he has a knack for getting what he wants. In his three decades as a leader of the American Indian Movement (AIM), founded in Phillips in the late Sixties, he has crisscrossed the continent bellowing demands, negotiating deals and scrapping with just about everyone on the way: cops, judges, tribal governments, reporters, and, of course, the feds. But lately Bellecourt and his older brother Vernon have been confronting what may be their most intractable enemy ever: their former allies, and a persistent rumor about a 24-year-old murder.

The whispers have floated around for more than two decades, vague, unproven, and known to only a few. But on November 3 they were briefly lifted into the mainstream headlines by Russell Means, the mercurial protest veteran and movie actor who remains AIM's most widely recognized member. Standing before a row of microphones outside a federal courthouse in Denver, Means leveled a blistering charge: In 1975, he said, the Bellecourts engineered the execution-style slaying of an AIM member named Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash. "Vernon Bellecourt made the phone call," Means declared resolutely, "and Clyde took the call and issued the order for her murder."

In the years since her body was discovered in a remote ravine on South Dakota's Pine Ridge reservation, Aquash has attained near-martyr status within AIM and beyond: The folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie has written songs about her. The Indigenous Women's Network gives out an Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash award. And for the better part of a decade a small cadre of reporters, investigators, and one distant relative have been seeking answers to persistent questions about her death.

Means's announcement sparked a few stories in the national media (though none in the Twin Cities), and it has been extensively covered in the Indian press, with the Bellecourts' names bandied about on the nationally syndicated program Native America Calling and in several native newspapers. That, in turn, has provoked a barrage of counterallegations from the Bellecourts--including claims that Means's accusations are the latest in a long line of government-sponsored attempts to discredit and disrupt the movement.

"Russell's a fed, man," Clyde Bellecourt says of his former comrade. "This whole thing is a continuation of an operation set up by the FBI in the Seventies." Vernon Bellecourt has offered even harsher opinions, telling one reporter that Means is "totally fried."

In his more temperate moments, Vernon--who heads what he terms AIM's Ministry for Information--attributes the accusations to a "deep-cover" CIA conspiracy engineered by Ward Churchill, a University of Colorado-Boulder professor with whom the Bellecourts have waged a fierce paper war.

Divisions, and elaborate conspiratorial theories, are nothing new within the American Indian Movement. In fact, two separate entities now lay claim to the AIM name: the National American Indian Movement Inc., based in Minneapolis and headed by the Bellecourts, and the International Confederation of Autonomous AIM, with which Means and Churchill are associated. For the better part of the decade, the separate camps have been scrutinizing and denouncing each other with a fervor they once reserved solely for the federal government.

 

Back when it all began, in 1968, no one could dispute Clyde Bellecourt's stake in AIM. He was a firebrand who, in the words of one admirer, "had a magnificent chip on his shoulder" that helped define the movement's in-your-face persona.

Born on the White Earth Indian Reservation in 1936, Clyde was the seventh of Charles and Angeline Bellecourt's 12 children. His father had enlisted in the Army during World War I and fought in France, where he was shot up and mustard-gassed. He returned to the States with permanent injuries that kept him from steady work.

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