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.

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About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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