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.

Bellecourt declines to answer most questions about Aquash's death, saying only that Means's accusation "doesn't bother me, and I don't pay too much attention to it. I know what we have to do here, and that's the important thing."

But according to Laura Weatherman Wittstock, a longtime friend of Bellecourt's, the controversy has taken a toll. "I think he's deeply disturbed," she offers, "that the image of AIM is crumbling around the edges because of these fringe people who are trying to revise history and create the illusion that there is no one to blame but ourselves, that we killed our own people, and that's all there is to it."

Wittstock, who met Bellecourt in 1971 while she was working as a journalist in Washington, D.C., says he impressed her as "the most even-tempered" of the AIM leadership--and, she says, he is the one who has "evolved" most in the years since. "I don't think there's any possibility Clyde or Vernon had anything to do with the murder of Anna Mae Aquash," she concludes. "To use her death as a means of attack is very, very wrong."

 

The American Indian Movement's original leaders have followed varied and peculiarly American career trajectories. Russell Means has worked extensively in Hollywood, with appearances in Natural Born Killers, Last of the Mohicans, and CBS's Walker, Texas Ranger. In 1984 he ran for vice-president on a ticket headed up by Hustler publisher Larry Flynt.

Clyde and Vernon Bellecourt, on the other hand, have become a part of the Twin Cities' institutional infrastructure. Clyde draws his salary from the Peacemaker Center and serves as president, chairman, or member of the board in a host of other organizations. Vernon Bellecourt develops job-training programs and remains busy on the speaking circuit as founder of the National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media, which opposes Indian mascots. Dennis Banks has returned to the Leech Lake reservation. Though he is still affiliated with AIM, Banks--like the movement itself--has receded from the national spotlight.

In a less complicated world AIM's founders, closing in on old age, would be resting on their laurels--or, at the least, not lunging at each other's throats. "Everybody thinks the American Indian Movement has folded up and gone away since Wounded Knee," Clyde Bellecourt says gruffly. "People have this John Wayne mentality about AIM. They think that if we're not waving a gun in the air, or taking over the BIA, there's no AIM. We're still here, we're still working. But all anybody wants to talk about is that old bullshit."

If the recent developments surrounding the death of Anna Mae Aquash demonstrate anything, perhaps it is the efficacy of COINTELPRO--a program whose stated goal was to disrupt cohesion in the movement. AIM's triumph was in the assertion of Indian identity, yet its leaders are now battling one another over that very issue: Who's a killer, who's a fed, who's AIM?

"AIM raised awareness of a lot of important issues," DeMain notes. "There's a duality. You've got the attractive and successful fundraising, the programs, the jobs. But the movement was led by human beings who made a lot of mistakes and there is very little left of the power and glory it had at one time. In terms of the mass of people who support it--that just doesn't exist anymore. Even among people who say they are part of the American Indian Movement, and there are many, [many] don't identify with Bellecourt or Means."

In a sense, the rancor and divisions within AIM conform to a basic historical template. From Robespierre to Trotsky, revolutions have often devoured their own. "Some day, it's gonna be like this," DeMain ventures. "You'll go to a powwow and you'll see Russell Means sitting over there with his big black hat and his choker and his ribbon shirt, and he'll be all decked out with his AIM buttons and felt patches, sitting in a wheelchair. And right alongside of him is gonna be Vern Bellecourt, in his big hat and choker and beaded medallions.

"And I can see it: Vern takes out his cane and whacks Russell over the head and says, 'I'm the leader of AIM.' And Russell whacks his cane over Vern's head, and says, 'I'm the leader of AIM.' And then Vern whacks Russell over the head and says, 'You're an FBI agent,' and Russell says, 'No, you're a CIA agent.' And back and forth, and back and forth.

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