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Native Cleveland: Robert Roche and the Origins of American Indian Activism in Cleveland 

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It's Roche's pocketbook, oddly enough, that seems to have animated rival Native American groups and the local press. In a piece by the Northeast Ohio Media Group's Mark Naymik this July (and in a follow-up "editorial" by 19 Action News' Dominic Mancuso), the American Indian Education Center was reamed for an "anonymous complaint" to the state Attorney General's office about the usage of grant funds. At issue was Roche himself, who, in fiscal year 2012, paid himself $136,000.

"That is a highly generous salary for a non-profit organization whose income is so unstable," wrote Naymik.

Which is true. But Naymik glossed over some important context. Namely, in 2012, the center received $650,000 in grant funding, a huge increase from prior years, thanks largely to a Department of Education grant geared toward underprivileged kids. In 2011, when the center received $235,000 in grant funding, Roche paid himself only $37,000. In 2010, when the center could only obtain $42,000 in grants, Roche — the director and only full-time employee, who habitually worked seven days a week — paid himself only $12,000. That same year, he wrote the center a $16,000 loan. On the tax filing, under "purpose," it reads: "Keep Center Open."

But keeping the Indian Center open has proven a tremendous challenge. With limited volunteers and few powerful allies, not to mention character attacks on all sides from other native groups, Roche has had to decamp yet again. The Center, which was formerly the Cleveland American Indian Center and morphed into the American Indian Education Center after Jerome Warcloud's inauspicious departure) occupied basements and storefronts on Church Ave., Lorain and W. 55th, Detroit and W. 64th, and Brookpark Road in Parma. It will now relocate to Pilgrim Church in Tremont. Roche anticipates that he'll have scrounged together the requisite funds by December, just in time for the center's annual Christmas party.

Heather Lombardo, the sales manager for Morton's Steakhouse in Cleveland, recently set up a GoFundMe account to raise money for the American Indian Education Center. She told me that as she's been seeking aid from other Native groups in the region, she's been surprised by the level of resistance.

"They're upset by Bob's salary," she said. "But it seems like they just want the money for themselves. And I'm thinking, who cares? These are little kids who often don't have food or water or gifts at Christmas."

Other representatives, Lombardo said, are bothered by Roche's usage of self- and community-identification to determine whether or not the people he serves are "actually" Native. They'd prefer Roche use Federal standards, (standards which by the way would still preclude Roche himself from identifying as an American Indian. The Chiricahua Apache nation is not yet tribally enrolled).

"I think they are all trying to make money and build community," Lombardo said, "but they don't want to work together. It's been crazy."

Probably not as crazy as the tirade against Roche on 19 Action News, which included two baseball-themed puns and continued to sneer at the idea that anyone could be offended by the Wahoo logo. It characterized the latest lawsuit as a "Roche publicity grab," an echo of Ohio AIM accusations. That group has been accusing Roche of using the entire Wahoo debate as a personal platform.

Philip Yenyo is the co-director of Ohio AIM. As if to hammer home the division mentioned above, the group's Facebook profile picture is that of a local American Indian with Clyde Bellecourt.

By phone, Yenyo accuses Roche — who he's already called a "scumbag" in online correspondence — of fabricating his identity. Yenyo has been trumpeting the "investigation" of the Indian Center (which the Ohio Attorney General's office can't confirm, deny or comment on) as a kind of poetic justice.

"His real name is Jose Roche," Yenyo tells me over the phone. "And we've got the birth certificate to prove it."

"Really?" I say, genuinely surprised. "Could you send it to me? Fax it maybe?"

"I don't have it in my possession," Yenyo says. "But we've got some people who are looking into it."

Yenyo's recent charges against Roche — he's been calling him a "convicted embezzler" and publicizing personal information about Roche's family — would be easier to believe if they didn't follow a clear pattern demonstrated by the Bellecourt brothers and NAIMI over the years. It's delineated pretty thoroughly in Attaguille's report:

"Someone purporting to be an official of National AIM Inc. contacts those hosting an event in which [target] is an announced participant. The standard set of accusations and allegations are spewed out as facts. In most cases, documentation is promised, but when and if it arrives, it contains 'expulsion letters' crafted by the callers repeating the allegations in some detail but offering no substantiation. To create an illusion of corroboration, the letters are usually accompanied by several 'news' articles and editorials...again, merely repeating the accusations. Where possible, local allies — mostly ignorant of the issues but eager to please and "take a stand" — are solicited to support 'AIM's National Office.'"

These tactics played out to borderline comical effect in 1998 when Roche was told by "National AIM leadership" to stop identifying himself as an AIM representative. PD reporters — rightfully confused — reached out to Russell Means, then living on a reservation, to get to the bottom of it:

"Means confirmed that Roche runs an autonomous chapter of AIM in Ohio and said it was ludicrous for AIM to be concerned about authorized representatives," the paper wrote.

Yenyo says that he's on his lunch break when I ask about the historic division in AIM, but not before calling Russell Means a "liar" and overstating a Roche civil dispute. (Yenyo and I have been playing phone tag ever since).

Roche, resisting the urge to roll his eyes when I ask about his identity, provides me with his birth certificate: Robert Joseph Roche. Born 5/03/1947 at St. Ann's Hospital in Cleveland. He says he has it at the ready because the "He's not Indian!" accusation is one of NAIMI's favorite refrains, along with "He's not AIM" and "He's an agent!" which was especially popular during the hyper-paranoid '70s and '80s.

What's most bothersome to Roche is that he really is out there trying to educate the community (especially young people) about American Indian history. He crusades against Wahoo, certainly, but also gives talks and lectures about Native culture and traditions. His modest home in Parma is strewn with books about American Indians and stacks of papers relating to potential lawsuits on behalf of native peoples. The worst thing about internal discord, Roche says, is that it stalls progress. Every attempt he's made to "educate" Yenyo and the Ohio AIM chapter about recent AIM history has been met with denial and hostility, he says.

Joseph Meissner doesn't give credence to the latest Roche accusations either, but says it's a shame the group's internal problems are being aired at all.

"It's like a family," Meissner said in a phone conversation. "They hurl these charges at each other, and my approach has always been: What's inside the group should stay inside the group. As outsiders, we don't know enough or have enough awareness to be involved. In some way, it's bad. On the other hand, maybe that's helping keep them alive. It's like older people who complain a lot. If they didn't complain, they'd die. With a lot of the groups in Cleveland, it may be a sign that they're still vibrant."

Vibrant or not, the reality of American Indian activism is that its pioneers are rapidly dying off. Native Americans' life expectancy is already extremely low, and the dual threat of alcoholism and diabetes exacerbates the problem. Russell Means passed away in October, 2012. Roche is worried now that the next generation won't know the true history of 20th century American Indian struggles or, far worse, that they won't care.

At Banks' afternoon talk, there's only a small audience to listen to his stories and medical counsel — he even performs a traditional native song before he speaks — but that doesn't depreciate the quiet power of his remarks. He's been to 19 reservations and 32 communities telling the story of his life, evangelizing with the force and brand of his name behind him.

Banks invites Roche to speak, and he too urges the community to acknowledge the importance of physical health. Still, there's no denying that this whole tour seems sort of sad. Nevermind the T-shirts and biker paraphernalia and sacred smoke in which we are all invited to purify ourselves, talks about diabetes are way less sexy than the armed conflicts of the Red Power movement back in the heyday, less thrilling than the rooting out of undercover agents and the reservation interrogations and the crackling ubiquity of loudspeakers. But while the arena has changed, the battle cry remains the same:

If you're an Indian, you've got to fight like hell to survive.

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