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

"Let me be a free man, free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to talk, think and act for myself — and I will obey every law or submit to the penalty."

— Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, Credo of the American Indian Movement

The most famous American Indian of the 20th century is riding shotgun in my Dodge Avenger, and he seems to have nodded off. We're rumbling east along I-480, and occasionally the old Ojibwa coughs or snores with unexpected force — he's 78 years old, after all — but for long stretches, he's quiet.

The corner of his visible eye, behind his aviators, is baroquely creased. His ample sports coat is boutonniered with a feather and dotted with pins. His black boater hat, which I've seen him remove only twice this morning to adjust a thin gray ponytail, is accented with technicolor beads. Though his face is weathered now, and weary, it's recognizable as the same defiant mug that played across TV sets nationwide during the 1970s, a decade during which he became a hero and household name for Indian peoples everywhere.

It's Dennis Banks, a man without whom, one local Indian pronounced, "we'd all still be living in fear."

Banks, for the uninitiated, along with another Ojibwa named Clyde Bellecourt and a handful of others, founded the American Indian Movement in Minneapolis, Minn., in 1968. AIM was conceived as an "informal alignment" of young native activists to combat police brutality and horrendous living conditions up North. Over the next several years, its members lobbied (often dramatically) for policies to promote and protect their culture and rights. Cleveland's was an early and robust chapter, initially led by Russell Means, who's hands-down a Top 5 Indian in terms of 20th century fame, thanks in no small part to his IMDb page (Chingachgook in Last of the Mohicans; the voice of Powhattan in Disney's Pocahontas).

If you were to ask the federal government — which American Indians, as a rule, try never to do — AIM was a bona fide terrorist organization back then, one which required not only surveillance but infiltration by deep-cover COINTELPRO agents. The group's 71-day siege of Wounded Knee, S.D., in '73 became a touchstone of radical activism. At least one historian has suggested that they were for "reds" what the Black Panthers were for blacks.

But Banks is here, in Northeast Ohio, in a non-AIM-sanctioned capacity. He's on a national motorcycle tour to talk about the scourge of diabetes, which — for your outrageous statistic of the day — afflicts nearly 80 percent of adult American Indians, Banks among them.

He spoke in Oberlin this morning and is now en route to Cleveland where he'll speak at the Carnegie-West branch of the Cleveland Public Library this afternoon. His cavalcade, which numbered 30 when they began in Seattle and dwindled to 24 in California, now counts only one motorcycling disciple, a half-Indian, half-Afghani former carpenter named Taymor Zahir who's got diabetes too. He grew up on a reservation in Washington state and now rides a blue Indian-brand bike with an AIM sticker on its rear fender. It's a non-debatable beaut.

Robert Roche, the Chiricahua Apache who "went viral" after a confrontation with a red-faced baseball fan outside Progressive Field earlier this year (but who has been protesting for forty-odd years on opening days in relative obscurity), is a former Cleveland AIM director and is riding with me and Dennis.

"He's an icon," Roche says softly, of our napping passenger. "He is AIM."

Some context there: The arguments over who is and who isn't AIM have been raging with increasing ire and complexity within the Indian activist apparatus since the mid '70s. Infighting has been something of a calling card. It's a legacy, many Indians agree, of ancient tribal feuds.

But it's an ongoing problem, variously cited as "internal discord," "internal rancor," "disruption" and "bad-jacketing," a technique employed by COINTELPRO, and later by Indian attachés, to discredit members of the organization with "disinformation tactics." AIM tribunal documents suggest it has been covered up in order to "present a unified front" to the American public — a public (and a mainstream media too) that cares about as much as the government does when it comes to Indian affairs. Which is to say very little.

Roche's reaffirmation of Banks is in counterpoint to comments made by the Ohio AIM Chapter, on its sporadically vindictive Facebook page and elsewhere, which indicated that its members wouldn't be attending Banks' talks today because "he's not the real AIM."

Not the real AIM? Given Banks' foundational role in the organization, the accusation seems like an inherently paradoxical one. But it turns out to be fairly common in the community. Roche himself was the subject of a Plain Dealer inquiry back in the '90s related to the legitimacy of his leadership. It was brought up again this summer when questions arose about financial mismanagement at the American Indian Education Center, of which Roche has been executive director since its inception in 1995. (Roche, be advised, has an armory of insults reserved for PD reporter Mike Sangiacomo).

As it stands nationally, there are two AIMs, or wings of AIM, if you will, and they are fundamentally different.

According to Faith Attaguile and an exhaustive report she produced in 1998 for Dark Night Press, an Illinois-based indigenous outlet, the first wing is called National Aim, Inc. (NAIMI). It's helmed by Clyde Bellecourt and it: "amplifies and documents talking native talk while walking the corporate walk. NAIMI is replete with regional subsidiaries, a self-appointed command structure, membership rolls, fees and dues, fundraising capabilities and vanity license plates."

Bellecourt, his brother Vernon (now deceased), and a very small inner circle have been churning out rumors in disinformation packets from their headquarters in Minneapolis since 1972. Both Russell Means and Robert Roche have been targets of their efforts.

The other wing calls itself the Confederation of Autonomous Chapters of the American Indian Movement (or merely Autonomous AIM). These chapters are more directly descended from the original group in spirit and structure, eschewing centralized leadership and generally focusing on issues specific to local populations. Holiday parties, powwows, language classes, and cultural events are the primary stocks in trade, though they do liaise with other chapters and send representatives to policy-centric national meetings. In Cleveland's case, opposition to the Chief Wahoo logo has been an enduring organizing force.

Cleveland AIM is an Autonomous chapter. Ohio AIM is a NAIMI subsidiary. That's one piece of the latest local controversy.

Amber Shulz, who founded the American Indian Council at Oberlin College when she attended in the late '90s, told me that to make matters worse, Cleveland isn't situated on historic tribal land, so it's especially difficult to establish unity.

"I think that people need some sort of structure to organize under," she said by phone from Portland. "But I was really struck by the animosity when I was in Cleveland. I think it has more to do with resources and lack of resources. As American Indians, we have very limited visibility, and it's hard to get non-natives to look and listen to us, so we get the natives to. Sometimes we have the same objectives in mind and just different ways to get there."

After Banks' talk in Oberlin, he told me that, as far as AIM objectives are concerned, "treaties must remain the top priority."

His voice, slow and sawdusty, is clipped with flat Minnesotan vowels. Banks is Ojibwa (Chippewa) and still lives in a reservation near Minneapolis, and the fact that he shares speech patterns with Fargo's Marge Gunderson is frankly surreal. He pronounces "diabetes" like fetus, not Wheaties.

He also said that after an upcoming conference in Green Bay at the end of October (the first national AIM assembly in decades), he intends to assume a strictly "advisory" role in the organization.

"I'll give them any advice they need," he said, "but I want to keep doing this for the rest of my life."

By this, he means the diabetes campaign. He's as passionate about Zumba and Vitamix blenders as he once was about storming the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

When he stirs in the car, Roche takes the opportunity to ask if Banks ever talks to Jerome Warcloud these days. Warcloud was a long-tenured director of the Cleveland American Indian Center in the '70s and '80s and now lives on a reservation in South Dakota.

"Warcloud?" Banks perks up at the name. "I thought he kicked the bucket years ago."

***

Baffled representatives at both the Midwest and Eastern regional offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs had to "check" to see if Cleveland, Ohio, fell under their administrative purviews. In fact, the lady to whom I was directed at the Eastern office seemed downright inconvenienced by my request for information relating to the BIA's Cleveland office and Native American relocation there.

"There's no office in Cleveland," she said.

"But there was."

"There are no tribes in Ohio," she said (referencing the 566 Indian nations which have been recognized via federal enrollment, a mere fraction of the total number which once occupied this country).

"Right, but I mean in the '50s and '60s," I say. "There was an office here for the relocation program. I'm trying to find some paperwork about it. Case files, things like that."

"You mean the 1800s?"

"No ma'am. I mean the 1900s."

(Those files turn out to be housed in the National Archives, Group 75.13, in Washington D.C., but I was unable to access them in person for this story.)

The fact that Cleveland has an American Indian population at all is due almost entirely to the federal program mentioned above. Initiated in 1956, the Indian Relocation Act was exactly what it sounds like. It represented the land-based inroads within the government's broader "termination" policy for natives. Reservation Indians were lured to American cities to acquire job skills and assimilate into the dominant culture.

A '50s-era reservation poster promoting Denver, one of eight destination cities, touted the "Good Jobs," "Happy Homes," "Many Churches," and "350 Days of Sunshine" in Colorado, "the Tallest State!"

By 1970, roughly half of all American Indians lived in urban areas. This was a more dramatic population shift than any other in their history. As late as 1950, 86.6 percent were still on reservations.

Cleveland was the easternmost of the relocation cities and was considered an optimal location in 1960, writes Lynn Metzger in a 1988 dissertation for Case Western Reserve University, "as it was a booming industrial center with plenty of entry-level jobs, and it was such a distance from the reservations that the relocated individuals could not easily go home."

In Cleveland, men generally were trained as welders and women as stenographers. An Anishinaabe man in Banks' coterie mentioned off the cuff that his uncle had been in Cleveland and ended up welding pontoon boats.

But the BIA was notoriously unhelpful during those years — "Boss Indians Around," was the Native slang. Dispersed to assorted slums with minimal information on how to adapt to city life, Indians were left to fend for themselves. Most of them struggled with simple things like riding buses — how do you get it to stop? — buying groceries and communicating with landlords in English. As a rule, most relocated Indians (who had been given a one-way bus ticket) were issued a one-month stipend. And that was it. Many descended quickly into poverty and alcoholism. Others fled back to the reservation in borrowed vehicles when funds ran out.

When Russell Means arrived in the late '60s, Cleveland's American Indian population had soared from 109 to 1,200. (According to 2010 census data, Native Americans now make up 0.3 percent of Cleveland's population). Means soon took matters into his own hands. He established the Cleveland American Indian Center in 1969 so that new arrivals had a place to convene and socialize, though many of the men already were doing so at the Old 77 Bar on Detroit Avenue, what is now the Happy Dog.

Ohio City and Detroit-Shoreway became the region's Indian Country. Means, infuriated by the BIA's policy to intentionally settle Indians away from one another, encouraged a mass relocation to the west side. There, in the basement of St. John's Episcopal Church on Church Avenue and West 28th Street (what is now Hingetown), the center held its first informal meetings.

Robert Roche drives me there one morning in September. He's leading a guided tour of American Indian history in Cleveland since relocation. He's already shown me the roach- and rat-infested apartment buildings on the east side where Indians were often settled, and we're now checking out the organizational hubs.

"I grew up in this neighborhood," I tell Roche, once the keys are out of the ignition. "I never knew it was such an Indian hotspot."

"We are the invisible minority," he says. "Some of us don't look like Indians, you know, so it's hard to tell. Some tribes look like Asians. Some tribes look white. There are blonde Indians! A lot of times, people assume I'm Puerto Rican."

The basement in St. John's is currently under construction, but the crew lets us spelunk through the basement debris. Roche's face is that of a grandmother rediscovering her wedding album: "This is where it all began," he says.

***

One of the most iconic moments in Cleveland's AIM-style activism transpired in 1971. The event is recounted both in Russell Means' 1995 autobiography Where White Men Fear to Tread and in local attorney Joseph Meissner's recent book Legal Warriors. Meissner was the Cleveland American Indian Center's lawyer in 1972 when they filed the initial Chief Wahoo lawsuit and has remained affiliated with the community ever since.

In 1971, Cleveland civic leaders and "top businesspeople" — a power elite that exists to this day — were planning a celebration for the city's "Super Sesquicentennial." A reenactment was planned at Settler's Landing on the banks of the Cuyahoga, complete with real-live descendants of Moses Cleaveland himself.

The day before the event, organizers realized with a shock that they'd forgotten to enlist local Native Americans to "welcome" the settlers to Cleveland. They promptly called the Indian Center to invite them to attend.

"We'd love for you to wear your costumes," they said (roughly).

Means, then the Center's director, enthusiastically accepted the invitation and showed up the following day with a cohort in full regalia — tomahawks, headdresses, and all. Except when "the settlers" arrived by boat at Settler's Landing, the Indians formed a blockade and refused to let them disembark.

"We've got enough of your kind," was the message they hoped to make loud and clear that day. "You are not welcome."

Some brisk negotiations ensued, and Cleveland leaders vowed to take Native American concerns more seriously, if nothing else so that they could get on with their party.

Those promises, though, certainly didn't pan out in the court of law. The Indian Center's $9 million suit against the Cleveland Indians baseball team was settled only after 12 years of tedious courtroom appearances. Local Native Americans received a grand total of $35,000.

It's unrealistic, then, to ascribe any urgent significance to the $9 billion lawsuit that Roche and a legal team threatened to file this summer. Roche, Sundance (the Cleveland AIM director) and lawyers are still actively meeting to determine when and how to move forward with it. Some of the timing, Roche says, may be dependent on the Washington Redskins.

Roche has acknowledged that the figure may seem exorbitant, though he maintains that for 100 years of racism, it's not entirely out of proportion.

"With these people," Roche told me, "if you don't go after their pocketbooks, they don't care at all."

***

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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