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Medicine man issue debated in John Graham motions hearing

Medicine man issue debated in John Graham motions hearing


John Graham would have had reason to believe that anything he allegedly told a Lakota medicine man about his involvement in the 1975 death of Annie Mae Aquash would remain confidential, a Native scholar testified Monday.

And just as jurors would not hear a confession made to a Catholic priest, defense attorney John Murphy said jurors at Graham’s upcoming murder trial should not be allowed to hear incriminating statements that his client allegedly made to the late medicine man Al Gates.

Donovin Sprague, who is a Minneconjou historian, author and teacher, said during a Monday motions hearing that confidentiality is a concept that is “very understood” among Native cultures in the region. With medicine men and spiritual leaders especially, he said, confidentiality is “a protocol that they honor” whether the person seeking spiritual advice is a tribal member or not.

Graham is a member of the Southern Tutchone First Nation from the Yukon.

Sprague said he based his opinions on his own traditional upbringing and knowledge of tribal culture, as well as on his discussions with spiritual leaders Arvol Looking Horse, Rick Two Dogs and Wilmer Mesteth.

Seventh Circuit Judge Jack Delaney tried to pin Sprague down on just how far that commitment to confidentiality would go. If a child were found murdered in a traditional camp and someone confessed to a medicine man, he asked, would the medicine man still maintain confidentiality?

“Traditionally … I don’t think it would be revealed,” Sprague said, but he was quick to say that one medicine man might not operate in the same way as another medicine man would. “There wasn’t like a written set of rules governing what we’re talking about here, really. … He would use his discretion what he wanted to do.”

Delaney did not rule on Murphy’s motion. Another motions hearing was scheduled for next Monday.

Graham is scheduled to go on trial Nov. 29 on charges of premeditated murder, felony murder in connection with a kidnapping and felony murder in connection with rape. If convicted, he would face life in prison.

Contact Heidi Bell Gease at 394-8419 or

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