For two months in the dead of winter, her body lay below an embankment at the edge of the frozen Badlands.
Even after she was found by a rancher checking his fences in late February 1976, her identity remained a mystery. The harsh elements had left her unrecognizable. She had no wallet, no driver’s license.
A coroner — apparently overlooking the gunshot wound to her head and the slug lodged in her temple — ruled the woman had died of exposure.
Federal agents cut off the corpse’s hands and sent them to a FBI lab in Washington, D.C., in hopes of identifying her through fingerprints. Then, on March 2, she was laid to rest at Holy Rosary Mission Cemetery as “Jane Doe.”
But she would not remain anonymous for long. Within days, fingerprint experts identified the body as that of Annie Mae Pictou Aquash, a 30-year-old Canadian native and American Indian Movement activist.
The body was exhumed. A second autopsy revealed she had been murdered. And now, 35 years later, Aquash’s death continues to haunt those who knew her and scores who didn’t.
Maybe it’s because for decades it seemed Aquash’s murder would remain unsolved — or at least not prosecuted. Many in AIM who had spent years battling the federal government firmly believed the FBI had killed Aquash, then tried to cover up the crime by removing her hands and ruling her death an accident.
But there were also rumors that AIM leaders had ordered Aquash’s death, believing she was a government informant.
Then, in 2003, came news of an arrest in her murder. The accused: a member of AIM, the Native rights movement in which Aquash had believed so strongly that she had left two young daughters behind in Canada and traveled to South Dakota to join its fight.
Seven years, two trials and one guilty plea later, details are still emerging about what happened in the hours leading up to Aquash’s death. This week, John Graham, the man accused of putting the gun against Aquash’s head and pulling the trigger, will go on trial in 7th Circuit Court for murder.
As in the previous trials, the courtroom is expected to be filled.
No one cares more about finding justice for Aquash than her family. But Denise Maloney, Aquash’s eldest daughter, believes she knows why so many other people — people who didn’t even know her mother — also continue to follow the case so closely.
“I think what people are drawn to is that she represented unconditional justice,” Maloney said in a telephone interview from her home in Canada. She said her mother fought for women’s rights, for human rights and for Native rights. “I think people recognize that. And the fact that she was killed for that touches a lot of people, regardless of how much you love or hate the government.”
Decades of government mistrust have created an undercurrent of tension beneath all proceedings in this case. Although many want to see Aquash’s killers brought to justice, some seemed to find it hard to swallow that the federal government — the same government that had done so many injustices to Native people — was the entity trying to make that happen.
Some AIM supporters maintain that even if AIM did kill Aquash, the federal government is to blame for setting her up by letting people suspect she might be an informant.
“There’s a whole generation of people who love hating the FBI,” said Paul DeMain, a Native journalist from Wisconsin who has extensively investigated the Aquash case. “There’s even a sense of ‘us against them.’ It’s playing out, the Indians against General Custer in some people’s minds.”
That “us against them” mentality doesn’t have much to do with finding justice for a murdered woman, he said. But for many people, the Aquash case is bigger than that.
“It’s got to do with a lot of dynamics having to do with the identity of certain people,”
DeMain said. “There’s a whole generation of people who literally came out of urban areas for the most part, other than Pine Ridge, who found their identity through the American Indian Movement. And perhaps Pine Ridge, not needing to find their identity, found some hope.”
For them, hearing evidence that AIM could have killed one of its own has been difficult.
Deb White Plume of Manderson attended the trials of Fritz
Arlo Looking Cloud and Richard Marshall, both of whom were charged with Aquash’s murder. Looking Cloud was convicted; Marshall acquitted.
“I sit through those trials because I want to know what happened,” she said. “I mean, it’s important that a woman was found with a gunshot wound in her head. And I want to know what happened to her.”
As an AIM supporter, White Plume said she and her family endured threats and violence from government-backed authorities during the 1970s. Her car was burned, her windows broken, her family — including her mother and 3-year-old son — wounded by gunshots she said were fired by an off-duty Bureau of Indian Affairs officer.
But AIM didn’t cause division on the reservation, she said. “That division was here before AIM ever came here.”
Even after sitting through two trials, White Plume said she isn’t sure who to believe. What she doesn’t like is the characterization of Aquash’s death as an “AIM slaying.”
“To me, AIM was a spirit. It was a spirit of your traditional identity and being able to love that identity and to not bow down and be ashamed of who you are. And that spirit is still alive today,” she said. “To label it as an AIM killing … to me, that’s the government wanting to break any kind of
solidarity among the Native
The government may have wanted to break that solidarity. But to DeWayne Glassgow, a retired lawman who was Custer County Sheriff during the trials after the 1973 AIM riots at the Custer County Courthouse, AIM brought about its own downfall by killing someone they believed was an informant.
“In my opinion, (the Aquash murder) kind of defines the end of the American Indian Movement,” he said.
Glassgow agreed that AIM brought attention to Native issues — mistreatment, boarding school issues, poverty — that needed to be brought forward and addressed by mainstream society. To do that, they held protests that Glassgow described as “not often non-
“It seems to me like it continued to escalate, as far as violence goes,” he said, and by 1975, “people started dying.” In his view, AIM lost credibility as the violence escalated. And the culmination, he said, was the murder of “one of their own.”
Native activist and longtime AIM leader Russell Means said Aquash deserves justice.
“Anyone who kills a woman, and especially a mother, should be punished,” he said. “It’s that simple.”
But Means is frustrated that prosecutors have focused on the “foot soldiers” of AIM rather than its decision-makers.
“They’re going after the lower echelons of the American Indian Movement, the ones the government evidently feels no one cares about, and convicting them rather than going after the big fish who are responsible for her death and who ordered the death and who were complicit in her death,” he said. “There’s a white lawyer involved. … It’s public knowledge that Anna Mae was taken to his office — and still, nothing.
“They’re picking on defenseless people who are not consequential in the whole mosaic of the investigation,” Means continued. “Go after the people who are responsible.”
Means also questions why Theda Clarke, who was reportedly with Graham and Looking Cloud when Aquash was kidnapped and executed, has not been charged.
“Maybe they have a plan to ‘go up the ladder,’ so to speak,” he said. “I just think that once they get the trigger man convicted, they should go after others. I hope that’s the plan.”
Little by little, the truth may eventually emerge. And that, to her family, means Aquash’s death was not in vain.
“They were never looking to condemn an organization,”
DeMain said of Aquash’s daughters. “Their goal was to put the person who shot their mother behind bars, or make him confess and take responsibility for the taking of a human life.”
He finds it interesting that it has been women — including the late journalist Minnie Two Shoes and AIM-member-turned-government-witness Kamook Banks — who kept asking questions about what happened to Aquash, even when they didn’t like the answers.
“I’ve found that the courageous people have been the women in the American Indian Movement,” DeMain said.
Maloney hopes her mother’s case can empower others to tell the truth about other injustices that have happened — including the disappearance of Ray Robinson, an AIM supporter who was seen in Wounded Knee during the occupation but was never heard from again after a confrontation with AIM security guards.
“It’s my hope that through exposing this truth, and people finally taking responsibility, that people are able to heal and stand up and stand strong in the face of adversity in their own communities and be empowered by the strength that my mother had,” she said. “Her spirit carries on in many people, because there’s a lot of people who talk about her.”
It saddens Maloney to think about what her mother could have accomplished had she lived. Maloney firmly believes that with her mother’s drive and commitment to fighting injustice, she could have made a difference in the lives of Native people.
This week, state prosecutors will pick up the fight to bring Aquash’s killers to justice. For her family, that means uncovering the truth.
“It’s not about winning,”
Maloney said. “We’ve all lost.”
Contact Heidi Bell Gease at 394-8419