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.

In addition, Means has charged that the Bellecourts' willingness to solicit federal money flew in the face of the movement's values, since throughout Indian history federal money has often been linked with corruption and compromise. The split escalated in 1993, when Means acted as a prosecutor in a special tribunal convened by a group calling itself the International Autonomous Confederation of AIM. The panel--which included Ward Churchill (the Colorado professor the Bellecourts have come to view as Means's Svengali)--expelled both brothers from the movement on grounds that included Clyde's 1985 conviction on an LSD distribution charge.

The Bellecourts rejected the validity of the expulsion, having previously incorporated AIM as the National American Indian Movement. "This whole Autonomous AIM is bullshit," Bellecourt scoffs. "Nobody recognizes it. There's no such thing as Autonomous AIM, and these chapters that have formed don't do anything but disrupt what AIM does."

After the White Clay march, Means says, he decided to ask more questions about the Aquash case. He contacted one of the people who had been linked to her abduction and murder. That person implicated Vernon and Clyde Bellecourt, he alleges--as did "other people," whom he also declines to identify. Two weeks after his November 3 press conference, Means testified before the grand jury looking into Aquash's death. "I told the grand jury that when they indict the kidnappers, I'm confident we can divulge more names," Means says.

His motives were uncomplicated, he adds: "I want history to reflect that AIM, no matter what you say about it, had enough integrity to admit its mistakes and to clean up its mistakes, no matter how horrendous they might have been."

Clyde Bellecourt has a less charitable view. He calls Means "a turncoat of the lowest degree," saying that to testify against a comrade before a grand jury constitutes a breach of AIM's ethic. When he was shot by a fellow AIM member in 1973, Bellecourt points out, he refused to testify. "We thought that was Indian business," he says. "Besides, the government didn't give a fuck if I was shot or killed. They just wanted to lock up people in the movement."

But Russell Means is not the Bellecourts' only prominent accuser. At the November press conference in Denver, Robert Pictou-Branscombe, Aquash's second cousin, stood by Means's side. Branscombe, a retired Marine and Vietnam vet, says he has been investigating Aquash's death for nine years and has concluded that the Bellecourts are responsible. Like Means, he won't provide details that might support that conclusion: "I don't want to put anybody in a bad spot," he says.

In his travels, Branscombe says, he has confronted two of the three individuals DeMain named as the kidnappers in his updated timeline. When he met one of them in Denver a few years back, he says the man claimed to have received immunity from prosecution for testifying against the alleged shooter in a 1994 grand-jury proceeding. "I know what's going on here, I know you're involved," Branscombe says he told the man. "He kept repeating: 'I have immunity.' But I said, 'You don't have immunity the way I see it. You don't have immunity with regard to the Canadian government, the Micmac Nation, and especially me.'"


After the Denver press conference, Vernon Bellecourt quickly posted a response to Means's charges on the AIM Web site (www.aimovement.org), condemning the actions of Branscombe, Means, and Churchill as "reckless, defamatory, slanderous and libelous" and demanding that the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee conduct special hearings into "all of the unsolved murders on the Pine Ridge Oglala Nation during the 1970s and continuing today." The release called the attack "a continuation of the United States Government's FBI war against the American Indian Movement that had its origins in the Nixon White House."

After Means testified, Bellecourt says he received a phone call from an FBI agent in South Dakota offering him a chance to respond before the grand jury. He refused, he says, out of the belief that only congressional hearings on COINTELPRO will produce justice. Meanwhile, Bellecourt vows to sue Means, Branscombe, and Churchill. "I think I have a clear court case," he says. "Defamation of character. False accusations. You call somebody a murderer--that's pretty heavy stuff. And it's really based on Russell Means's ego.

"The impression this has created is totally inaccurate," he continues. "The American Indian Movement is not fractured. People can stand up and say, 'We're AIM,' maybe have a membership card in their pocket, an AIM logo on the back of their jacket. That doesn't make them AIM. There's more to AIM than that."

That said, Bellecourt concedes that AIM is currently "broke" and that he's running the operation out of his home. "Of course we say that we refuse to be distracted by this," he volunteers. "But it is distracting. That's what it's designed for.

"You know, there's an old joke. Two chiefs are riding along on their horses visiting, kind of a social visit. Finally, one chief looks over his shoulder and he notices that his back is full of war lances and arrows. And he says to the other chief, 'I'm glad to see my people are still behind me.'"

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