AIM is not what it once was.
The feisty organization of Native Americans who took up arms at Wounded Knee is now caught up in internal strife and charges that one of its former leaders, Vernon Bellecourt, is a police informer.
Members of the American Indian Movement held a public trial in California March 24-5. A jury of five found Clyde Bellecourt, one of the organization’s founders, guilty of “subversion of AIM” and the “use, sale and/or distribution of drugs and alcohol to Indian people.” His brother, Vernon, was found guilty of “subversion of AIM.”
The two face further charges at another AIM tribunal in August, including the charge that Vernon is a police agent.
The conflict started in 1993, when Vernon and Clyde Bellecourt set up an organization known as “National-AIM” in Minneapolis.
The Bellecourts started proclaiming their group as the national office for AIM’s many state chapters and proceeded to appoint national representatives across the country.
This surprised long-time activists in AIM’s state chapters, who for years operated on a decentralized basis and had never met to appoint a national office.
Russell Means, AIM’s state executive director in Colorado, told The Nation that the Bellecourts also started trying to undermine some of AIM’s most outspoken activists.
“The grossest part was that, for reasons that were initially unfathomable, they began attacking AIM chapters and leaders who were very effective,” he said in a phone interview from California.
The person who bore the brunt of their attacks was Ward Churchill, a native-studies professor at Colorado University and co-director of AIM’s Colorado chapter who has written numerous books and articles about Native American oppression. The Bellecourts started suggesting that Churchill is really a white man because he isn’t enrolled on any official band council list. This has now become a big debate in the U.S., and publications like Indian Country Today have devoted entire articles to whether Churchill is really native.
Means said Churchill can trace his ancestry back to the immigrant roles of the Cherokee Nation in 1815. “I can’t trace my own ancestry to 1815,” Means said. “The Bellecourts are themselves one-eight Indian and then they go around pointing fingers at others.”
The activities of the Bellecourts led some AIM members to start asking questions. “What we couldn’t figure out was why they were doing this,” said Means. “We started doing some research into AIM history and we found out that every time there was dissension in AIM, Vernon Bellecourt was in the middle of it. ”
Means said suspicions were further raised when National-AIM appointed a known police informer as the group’s representative in Virginia and Maryland.
Leading AIM members started probing the past of the Bellecourt brothers, and even searched out testimony from their own people, the Ojibway. They found a pattern of irresponsible behaviour that was so pervasive, they started thinking Vernon Bellecourt was a police agent.
Twelve AIM chapters finally met last December to draw up an indictment against the brothers.
“Based on the evidence we have, we feel we can prove that Vernon Bellecourt is an agent,” said Means, who is the chief prosecutor in both trials.
The police-informant charge will be dealt with in the second part of the trial, planned for August in Minneapolis. The verdicts are being decided by a five-person jury including three non-AIM members, one of them a Cree lawyer from Edmonton, Sharon Venne.
The issue in the trials, says Means, is the sovereignty of each state AIM chapter, and of native peoples in general. “We want the Indian world to understand that sovereignty is the issue. The lack of respect of another Indian’s sovereignty is unconscionable.”