Bury My Heart
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.
Not that there would have been much chance of finding any. Historically the largest and poorest of northern Minnesota's Ojibwe bands, White Earth back then had a 95 percent unemployment rate. The Bellecourts lived in a cramped government-built home, squeaking by on Charles's disability and whatever food could be wrested from the forests and waters. Angeline was a product of one of the notorious government boarding schools, where, according to Clyde, "every time they caught her speaking Indian they actually tied sacks of marbles to her knees, gave her a bar of soap and a rag, and made her scrub floors."
Young Clyde's experience in public school wasn't quite as harsh. But from an early age he was openly defiant, questioning the value of paying daily homage to George Washington--"Boy George," as he now calls him. "Here's this man, wearing high-heeled shoes and little silk stockings, with a ruffled shirt and a blond wig and rouge on his cheeks," Bellecourt says. "They would tell us he's the father of the country. Well, he didn't look like my father or my grandfather."
At age nine Bellecourt was sent to a Benedictine mission school on the reservation. The strict discipline didn't sit well with him, and he became a chronic truant. In short order he was shipped off to a military-style reformatory in Red Wing. He spent three years there--the first of many stints in institutions that would shape his character and, by extension, that of the American Indian Movement.
When Bellecourt was 16 his family moved to the Twin Cities. After World War II, the federal government encouraged the migration of Indian people from rural reservations to urban areas, a policy designed to encourage assimilation and open up more reservation land to non-Indians.
Bellecourt found it difficult to adjust to the city. He tried his hand as a professional boxer (compiling a 2-1 record as a light heavyweight), but continued to get in trouble with the law. When he was 14, his brother Vernon, then 19, was sent to prison in St. Cloud for the armed robbery of a St. Paul bar. Over the years that followed, Clyde was arrested for a succession of offenses--including burglary and robbery--that ultimately landed him in the big house at Stillwater.
It was there, Bellecourt says, that he learned from a fellow inmate about Indian history, the broken treaties and stolen land. He also began to explore native spirituality in pipe and sweat-lodge ceremonies. "People always say that the American Indian Movement started in 1968," Bellecourt says. "But to me it started in the hole at Stillwater in '62."
Paroled by his late twenties, Bellecourt used his prison training as a steam-plant engineer to land a job with Northern States Power. But he remembered the lessons from Stillwater. In 1968, he conducted a series of meetings with like-minded Indians, and then called for a summit in an abandoned storefront on the north side. Concerned Indian Americans (a name dropped subsequently because of the "CIA" acronym) styled itself after the Black Panthers--a radical alternative to mainstream civil-rights organizations that took its cause straight to the streets.
Rechristened AIM, Bellecourt's group started a neighborhood patrol and established a court-monitoring project that led to the founding of the Legal Rights Center. "Back then, there were only two Indian organizations in town, and they weren't concerned about police brutality and racism," Bellecourt says. "So we became that voice." Also part of the organization was Dennis Banks, a Leech Lake Ojibwe who, like Bellecourt, had run into trouble with the law before landing a professional job as a recruiter for Honeywell.
When Russell Means joined AIM in 1969, he was a part-time accountant and former dance instructor living in Cleveland. Born on Pine Ridge, he'd grown up in California, then bounced around the country before gravitating toward activism. By the time he attended his first AIM gathering, he knew he'd found his place--an organization populated by uncompromising, tough guys just like him. Despite the bitter schism between them, Means credits Bellecourt with infusing the movement with its core credo. "He wasn't afraid of the police and he wasn't afraid of jail," Means recalls. "He was such a confrontational person, such a righteous person. I think Clyde's personality gave that aura of righteousness to the American Indian Movement and we took that. We went with that and we became enormously successful."
Media-savvy and forceful action soon catapulted AIM out of Minneapolis and into the national limelight. The group staged mass demonstrations at courthouses, embarked on cross-country caravans, even occupied--and then trashed--the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) building in Washington, D.C. Then, in 1973, AIM led a dramatic occupation of the hamlet of Wounded Knee on Pine Ridge. The action drew unprecedented attention to reservation poverty and became a rallying point for Indians across the country. Even among AIM's critics, Wounded Knee is regarded as a transforming episode in Indian activism, a ballsy stare-down with the federal government that provided a crucial spark to the revival of native pride, culture and religion.
But Wounded Knee shaped AIM's destiny both for good and ill. By the end of the 71-day standoff two protesters had died in firefights, and all those involved in the siege, some 137 people in all, were arrested and prosecuted. Though nearly all the cases ended in acquittal, the proceedings--including the high-profile trial of Banks and Means--put AIM on the defensive and altered the culture of the movement.
Freelance journalist Kevin McKiernan, who was the only reporter inside Wounded Knee and covered AIM extensively thereafter, says the transformation was helped along by the FBI. Since 1972, the bureau had been investigating AIM and its leaders, compiling extensive dossiers on the Bellecourts, Means, Banks, and others, and making heavy use of informers and infiltrators. The counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO for short, had proved remarkably effective against other Sixties radical groups the bureau deemed a threat to national security, including the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground.
"The senior agent in charge of South Dakota told me that between '73 and '76, the FBI ran 2,600 agents through the Pine Ridge reservation," McKiernan recalls. "That was their boot camp. They kicked in a lot of doors and they pushed a lot of people around. People were afraid on that reservation and the FBI was becoming more militant, and the hardcore segment of the American Indian Movement was becoming more militant too. It was like two trains bound to collide. And they did."
In the midst of the Wounded Knee siege, McKiernan shared a trailer with a young Micmac woman from Nova Scotia named Anna Mae Pictou. Pictou, who had snuck through security perimeters under cover of night, had first come to AIM through her work as a community organizer in Boston. During the standoff she married an artist and fellow activist, Nogeeshik Aquash. McKiernan recalls her as a lively, intelligent conversationalist with a sense of humor. "She was the only person I could make Indian jokes with, and then she'd make white jokes," he says.
After Wounded Knee tensions and violence escalated at Pine Ridge, then in the grips of a feud between "traditional" residents and a tribal leadership whose security force went by the official name of Guardians of the Oglala Nation, or GOONs. In the three years that followed, some 60 AIM members and traditionals were killed, according to the Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Team, which worked on behalf of those involved in the standoff.
By 1975 an AIM contingent had settled outside the village of Oglala in a traditional encampment called the Jumping Bull Compound. On June 26 two FBI agents arrived at Jumping Bull, allegedly to serve an arrest warrant for a teenager wanted on a robbery charge. A firefight ensued, and the two agents and one AIM member were killed.
Three men were ultimately tried in that case. Two were acquitted by an Iowa jury on the grounds of self-defense, while a third--Leonard Peltier--was convicted in a separate trial. His quest for a new trial or a presidential pardon has made headlines ever since.
According to accounts of those who were there, Aquash had been staying at the Jumping Bull compound with Peltier and the others until the day before the shootout, when she traveled to Des Moines to attend the trial of a fellow AIM activist. Nonetheless she was named as a suspect during the investigation into the agents' deaths, and the FBI kept a close eye on her.
Other eyes were on her as well. After Wounded Knee fear of informants within the movement reached a fever pitch. A few months before the Jumping Bull shootout, AIM security director Douglass Durham was exposed as a paid FBI operative, later testifying to his activities in a congressional hearing. A former Des Moines cop, Durham had aroused the suspicions of many AIM leaders, including Vernon Bellecourt and Russell Means; Means says he aired those concerns at an AIM-sponsored action in northern Wisconsin.
"Before I left," Means recalls, "I took Douglass Durham's van and I told Dennis [Banks], 'We think he's a fed. So tell him if he wants his van, he has to come to the Pine Ridge reservation to get it.'"
"I think everybody knew what that meant," he adds, "and I leave it to you to surmise. If Durham had been a real threat, he would have disappeared and quietly been buried somewhere. But he wasn't, so we exposed him to the news media. That was more valuable to us than taking care of him internally. But believe me, there was lots of paranoia in the movement."
That paranoia was exacerbated by a widely described COINTELPRO practice known as "bad-jacketing"--the suggestion made by an operative that another person was a snitch. Durham, according to many in AIM, applied the bad jacket to a number of people, including Aquash.
"Everyone had informeritis after [Durham's exposure]," says journalist McKiernan. "He put such a poison dart in the heart of AIM that the folks at COINTELPRO must have had a celebratory dinner after that.
"I don't know who killed [Aquash]," McKiernan adds. "But I know who designed the gun." Others note that rumors about Aquash gained currency in the movement when, in the final year of her life, she was twice arrested by the FBI and released on light bonds even though she was not a U.S. citizen.
Two months after Durham's exposure Aquash attended an AIM conference in Farmington, New Mexico. One of the two men ultimately acquitted in the Jumping Bull trials, Bob Robideau, has charged that Vernon Bellecourt had come to suspect that Aquash was an informer, and that he ordered Robideau, Peltier, and another man to interrogate her. If they believed she was guilty, Robideau has said, they were to bury her where she stood.
Vernon Bellecourt disputes the story. He points out that Robideau has close ties to Means, and that Peltier has denied participating in any such interrogation. But he acknowledges that he was intimately involved in AIM's internal security. After Wounded Knee, he says, he assumed responsibilities for seeking out infiltrators and informers within the movement, and he relishes describing how he "busted" Durham. Bellecourt insists he never took action against Aquash, nor ordered any taken.
"We had to have suspicions about a lot of people," he explains. "At the time at least two people came forward and told us that the FBI attempted to recruit them. But I was cognizant of the fact that there was a lot of paranoia, and that it wasn't without reason. I think I just took the information and tried to sort it out."
On February 24, 1976, a rancher named Roger Amiotte discovered a woman's body in a remote ravine on Pine Ridge. The FBI dispatched the corpse to a contract pathologist, who concluded that the woman--found wearing a windbreaker, jeans, and canvas shoes--had died of exposure. He severed the hands at the wrist (an act many later interpreted as deliberate desecration) and turned them over to the FBI. "Jane Doe" was quickly and quietly buried in an unmarked grave in a mission cemetery.
A week later a fingerprint analysis in Washington, D.C., identified the dead woman as Anna Mae Aquash, who had not been seen in at least two months. The body was exhumed and an independent pathologist--brought in at the urging of the Aquash family--performed a second autopsy. That examination revealed Aquash had been shot with a .38 caliber bullet, fired at close range into the back of her head. Evidence suggested that she might have been raped.
The botched first autopsy and the FBI's failure to promptly identify Aquash, who had been detained by agents at least three times in the previous year, fueled widespread suspicions of a government cover-up. Many in the movement concluded that Aquash was killed in retaliation for the two agent deaths at Jumping Bull. (The FBI has consistently denied any involvement, and shortly after Aquash's murder, then-FBI director Clarence Kelley took the unusual step of declaring that she had not been an informer.)
Very early on there were also rumors that AIM was involved in the slaying. In his book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, author Peter Mathiessen quotes AIM leader Dennis Banks as saying that he called off an internal investigation into Aquash's death because "if it was true that AIM was involved, it would crush the movement."
Means says he paid little attention to suggestions of AIM involvement, and he made no mention of Aquash in his 1995 memoir, Where White Men Fear to Tread. "I always thought that the rumors were instigated by the feds' rumor mill--either by agents or agents provocateurs or federal snitches," he says. "So I never took it seriously. I figured that's the cost of doing business for the American Indian Movement."
Paul DeMain did take the rumors seriously. The editor and publisher of the Hayward, Wisconsin-based newspaper News from Indian Country has been keeping files on the Aquash case since the news of her murder first broke. Back then he was a journalism student at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He was intrigued by the case largely because of the allegations about FBI
Like many of the people interested in the matter, DeMain says he was driven by a sense of spiritual connection to Aquash. And he identified with the predicament that preceded her death: In 1975, while working as a student reporter, he had spent some time covering an AIM-backed occupation on the Menominee reservation in Wisconsin. One night, he says, he was hanging around with some of the protesters at a rural cabin.
"It was just a big party," DeMain recalls. "I was sitting on the couch and everyone left the room but one individual, who went into the kitchen. All of a sudden he comes out and, lo and behold, there's an AR-15 pointed at me. And he says, 'Who are you? We know you've been taking notes and making records.'" Scrambling to establish his credibility, DeMain mentioned the name of a respected figure from the Menominee Warrior Society with whom he had been staying. "If I wouldn't have had that connection, there's a good possibility I could have been buried back outside that cabin," he says. "That was the atmosphere of 1975."
In 1994 DeMain began an extensive investigation with the assistance of two other reporters, interviewing some 50 sources and reviewing much of the 17,000-some pages of declassified FBI documents concerning AIM. (Another 6,000 pages, some thought to relate to the Aquash case, remain classified; last year the Native American Journalists Association petitioned, unsuccessfully, for their release.) For years, DeMain says, sources were reluctant to talk. But amid the dead ends and false leads, just enough bits of evidence surfaced to keep him going.
In 1996 he interviewed Dennis Banks on a march supporting Leonard Peltier. "When I started talking about it with him he welled up and couldn't speak for a while," recalls DeMain. "I had a few names already and he didn't deny anything. And he said, 'You've got to keep asking questions, keep searching.'
"And then he said, 'You know, we believe the FBI set us up, that you'll find someone in the government that worked hand in hand to get us to that point.' He didn't say the GOONs killed her, and he didn't say the FBI killed her. He just said, 'Keep searching for the truth.'" (Banks could not be reached for comment.)
In 1997 DeMain published his first set of findings in News From Indian Country (www.indiancountrynews.com), sketching out a timeline for the final year of Aquash's life. According to DeMain, Aquash was kidnapped from a Denver home where she had been staying in December of 1975 and "questioned intensely" by some AIM members in Rapid City before being hauled out and executed. Though his investigation drew on a variety of sources including trial transcripts, DeMain acknowledges that the allegations about who killed Aquash and why are based on interviews with sources who insist on anonymity.
In subsequent revisions to the timeline, DeMain has included more detailed versions of the alleged events, naming three individuals he believes were involved in Aquash's kidnapping. In DeMain's view the kidnappers (one of whom he claims was also the trigger man in the execution) were acting on orders from above. "These boys wanted to be dog soldiers," he says. "They wanted to be in the gang, they wanted to be important people. They were already doing security and toting around guns. So when someone in the movement ordered Anna Mae's pick-up, they went and did it."
They may have had other motives as well, DeMain says: A relative of one of the three had been present at the Jumping Bull compound, was a suspect in the shooting of the agents, and could have feared being implicated by Aquash.
Last March a Denver Police Department detective named Abe Alonzo pushed the case further yet. Alonzo, who'd been investigating the case since 1994, posted an open letter "to all Native Americans" on the Internet. The document noted that three grand juries had been convened in the case (in 1976, '83, and '94), and that none had returned an indictment. "This may be the last effort to prosecute those responsible for her murder," Alonzo warned. In November a fourth grand jury convened in Sioux Falls to hear testimony about Aquash's death. Citing confidentiality rules, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in South Dakota declines to provide any details on the proceedings.
Alonzo's letter confirmed some of DeMain's suspicions, saying that the investigation had "led to three individuals who are responsible for forcibly taking Anna Mae from Denver" and killing her at Pine Ridge, and that "a number of individuals" had questioned her in South Dakota. News from Indian Country has quoted the detective as saying that "the majority of information" in DeMain's timeline was accurate, though he wouldn't comment on specifics.
In September Alonzo, who works with the Denver PD's intelligence division, was taken off the case; his superiors told DeMain that the investigation was being reassigned to the homicide unit. To some observers anxious for an arrest, it felt like a setback. But DeMain maintains that progress remains likely, in part because of the growing number of people--particularly, he says, women--now volunteering information about the case.
"After Anna Mae was killed," says DeMain, "there were a lot of women inside the movement who heard all sorts of rumors, who knew about the bad-jacketing, and then Anna Mae shows up dead. For years, they wanted to believe something different, but now they're grandmas and, goddammit, they live every day of their lives thinking about it. They knew what happened to Anna Mae, they saw her a few days before she was killed, and they heard these people were involved.
"When this stuff comes out, it comes out with all the putrid fermentation of 20 some years," DeMain concludes, adding that he now considers the murder to be "not an unsolved crime, but an unprosecuted one."
Last summer Clyde Bellecourt, Russell Means, and Dennis Banks marched together for the first time since the Seventies. The occasion was a protest in White Clay, Nebraska, a hamlet of 22 just two miles from Pine Ridge. Two Lakota men had been found murdered on the outskirts of town and the protesters claimed that the killings hadn't been properly investigated. The circumstances were eerily similar to those that had drawn AIM to Pine Ridge nearly 30 years ago. But the display of unity was an illusion this time.
"With me and Dennis there was no problem," Bellecourt recalls. "But with Russell, it was really hard. He stopped to shake my hand and I accepted his hand. But I wouldn't have anything to do with him."
Means and the Bellecourts had spent the past two decades locked in a battle for control of the movement, and their divisions had become personal as well as ideological. Cliques had existed in the movement from the beginning: As Means puts it, "Dennis [Banks] had his circle, Clyde had his circle, and I had my circle." But by the early Eighties, the schisms widened. As AIM and its international arm--the International Indian Treaty Council--became increasingly involved in foreign affairs, the two camps picked separate sides in Nicaragua. The Bellecourts were courted by the Sandinistas and Means allied himself with Miskito tribal members who fought alongside the contras.
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.'"
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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