Killing Anna Mae Aquash, Smearing John Trudell
"Vernon Bellecourt made the phone call. Clyde took the call and issued the order for her murder."
– Russell Means
"I personally will be overjoyed when the Canadian courts rule to return John Graham back to the US to answer for this brutal murder."
– Robert Robideau
On February 24, 1976, the frozen body of American Indian Movement (AIM) activist Anna Mae Pictou Aquash was found wrapped in a blanket in a ravine on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Aquash was with the militants who occupied the town of Wounded Knee, SD for 71 days in 1973, the culmination of a reservation Reign of Terror that saw over sixty "traditional" Indians murdered. Anna Mae, the highest ranking woman in the male-dominated AIM, had disappeared from Denver in December 1975.
Another FBI cover-up?
Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) pathologist, Dr. W. O. Brown certified that she had "died from exposure." In a very unusual move, her hands were severed and sent to the FBI for fingerprinting and, even more unusual, she was quickly buried in a pauper’s grave March 3rd, before any identification was made or any burial permit issued.
That same day, the FBI announced that the body was that of Aquash, a 30-year-old Mi’kmaq from Nova Scotia. Her Canadian family was informed by the FBI that she had "died from natural causes."
At her family’s request, an exhumation order and a new autopsy was gained. On March 11, a second autopsy revealed the true cause of death, an execution shot to the back of the head and the .32 caliber bullet was recovered
Of course, this led to charges of an FBI cover-up. To this day, many believe that the FBI had her killed. And, there is, of course, ample reason to believe this: Agent David Price, a maverick cowboy even within that lawless agency, had arrested Aquash June 25, 1975 and pressured her to cooperate with the authorities on a series of incidents; most specifically the famous shootout that left two agents and one Native dead and for which AIM leader Leonard Peltier is now serving time after being the sole person convicted. Price famously told Aquash that she’d "be dead within a year" should she not cooperate.
Who Done It?
Price’s prediction obviously came true. But, the FBI claims that it was AIM itself who murdered Aquash as a suspected informer. There exists a video confession from Arlo Looking Cloud, who alleges that he was present when another AIM foot soldier, John Boy Graham, shot her. Looking Cloud was convicted of aiding a first-degree murder.
Graham admits in a 2001 interview that he helped abduct Aquash from Troy Lynn Yellow Wood’s Denver home. While still in the hands of her abductors, Aquash was taken to various locales for interrogation by AIM leaders just prior to her execution. Graham admits he was with her in the various places in South Dakota where she was reportedly seen during the time before her execution. Also in on the Denver kidnap was Graham’s adopted aunt, Theda Clark, the very woman who first accused Aquash of being an informer at the 1975 AIM convention in New Mexico. At Looking Cloud’s trial, FBI agent Price admitted that his job was to recruit informants, but that Anna Mae was not among them!
Of course, this has split AIM. Various AIM members have chosen sides. Some AIM leaders have acknowledged that John Graham was the triggerman. Noted AIM spokesman, actor and visionary spoken word artist John Trudell testified to an exchange he had with Looking Cloud. Trudell was chairman of AIM at the time:
"He told me that he, and Theda, and John Boy did, in fact, take Annie Mae from Troy Lynn’s house to Rapid City. And when they were in Rapid City, that Annie Mae was kept in an empty apartment that belonged to Thelma Rios; or nobody was living in it. Anyway, she was kept in an apartment of some sort that belonged to Thelma. But it seems to me from my conversation with Arlo that Annie Mae was never in Rapid City for more than a couple of days at the very most; but it seems to me that she wasn’t there a real long time. She was taken from Rapid City by him, and John Boy, and Theda, to a house in Rosebud that was by the Indian hospital, and they went to this house, and they parked at this house. And according to Arlo, Theda and John Boy went inside this house, and they were in there for a period of time, and they came back out, and they got in the car. And then they went and drove to the spot where Annie Mae was killed. And John Boy and Arlo walked her out to a spot and made her kneel down; he said she was on her knees; and she was praying and talking about her children, and she didn’t want to die. And then John Boy shot her in the back of the head."
Trudell’s also testified in the trial of Robert Robideau and Dino Butler in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, June 22, 1976. Both men were acquitted of charges on grounds of self defense in the same shootout that brought about Peltier’s conviction. Trudell testified: "Dennis (Banks) told me she (Anna Mae) had been shot in the back of the head. He told me this in February, about the 25th or 26th of February. He told me this in California. I was sitting in the car with Dennis and he said, ‘You know they found Annie Mae.’ No, he said it this way. He said, ‘You know that body they found? That is Annie Mae.’ I didn’t know about a body. Then he said that."
As Aquash’s body was not identified until March 3rd at the earliest and the true cause of death not known until the second autopsy, how did Banks know? AIM leaders Vernon and Clyde Bellecourt were there when Graham, Clark and Looking Cloud took Aquash to those sites in South Dakota where she was interrogated and raped just before her murder. Both Bellecourts were also with Banks when he told his tale to Trudell. Vernon Bellecourt was seen mysteriously visiting the FBI during Looking Cloud’s trial.
A cover-up apparently exists after all.
We now know who did it. The remaining question is "Why was she killed?" AIM was plagued with Price’s informants during those years. On March 12, 1975, AIM head of security Douglas Durham was exposed as an FBI operative. In yet another recorded interview, AIM leader Herb Powless detailed an AIM plan to kill Durham. However Durham, Vernon Bellecourt’s one-time protégé, escaped. It’s not that big a stretch to conclude that given that some members of AIM were fully prepared to kill a known FBI snitch, why would they not kill anyone else they suspected? It was just months earlier at the New Mexico convention that Theda Clark had laid the "snitch jacket" on Aquash. (A Snitch Jacket is when an agent makes claims or plants information that suggests an activist is a police informer.)
The Wannabes Get It Wrong
Now into this mix, we have the spectacle of various progressive groups also lining up unfortunately upon the wrong side of justice. John Trudell, Dino Butler, Russell Means and other Aquash friends recently were vilified in a long, inaccurate article published in the Earth First! Journal. The EF!J should know better given the history of Earth First! and other allied radical groups like the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front. Recent activist arrests have shown that both ALF and ELF have been penetrated by informers, if not flat-out agent provocateurs like Durham. The FBI admits that the ALF/ELF arrests were made as a result of "confidential informants." With all this on their plate, the EF!J somehow found the time to support the false innocence claims of Graham and his supporters and snitch jacket Trudell, who I’ll add was there shoulder to shoulder with us on anti-nuke, anti-war, pro-Indigenous rights, anti-FBI efforts… before the editors of the EF!J were even born.
Leonard Peltier has distanced himself with Graham, after first vehemently supporting him. Peltier even once filed libel lawsuits against an Indian publication over it. Upon Graham’s arrest, Peltier wrote: "I fear that John Boy will not receive a fair trial in the US anymore than I did. I must remind you, it is court record that the FBI lied to extradite me back to the US. I know that their behavior hasn’t changed just as I know that Anna Mae was not an informant. As much as I want justice for Anna Mae, I likewise do not want an injustice to be enacted against one of our own in the name of crime-solving–so that some finger-pointing government lackey can get a feather in his cap."
But, here’s what Robert Robideau, the international spokesman for his first cousin Peltier’s defense, wrote on February 2, 2005;
"There is compelling evidence that has recently come to our attention regarding John Graham that compels Leonard Peltier to disassociate himself and the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee from John Graham and the John Graham Defense Committee.
We have notified the Graham Committee of our decision; and we have also communicated, three times our demands that the John Graham Defense Committee remove all of Leonard’s support Letters, expressions, web site and support web sites from their official web site.
Thus far they have yet to comply with our requests. Leonard wants to make it very clear he wants justice to run its course and that he wants to also make it clear that he had no involvement in this matter and hence cannot associate himself with those alleged to have committed this crime against Indian people.
One would think the EF!J and others who support Peltier would have noticed.
Anna Mae Pictou Aquash was a genuine heroine. Her contributions to the cause of Indigenous peoples are irrefutable. She was instrumental in gaining support for AIM from various Hollywood celebrities, such as Marlon Brando. She also spoke out endlessly about on-going injustices towards Native peoples everywhere at various public and private meetings, even after she became very aware of the threats to her life.
It’s time for progressives to drop the romantic "our Indians, right or wrong" nonsense and get behind the bringing to justice of ALL who were involved, not just the triggerman and his accomplices. Someone(s) much higher up in the organization clearly passed Anna Mae’s death sentence.
Justice Delayed. Where Are They Now?
Arlo Looking Cloud is in prison. John Boy Graham is free on the ridiculously low for a first degree murder case bail of $25,000, awaiting extradition in British Columbia. Anna Mae’s family requests your support bringing him to trial. Theda Clark is in her 80s, feeble and in a nursing home. Vernon and Clyde Bellecourt continue to deny the charges against them as laid out by yet another AIM leader, Russell Means. Means held a press conference in Denver in 2000 where he stated unequivocally; "Vernon Bellecourt made the phone call. Clyde took the call and issued the order for her murder."
John Trudell has a 17,000 page FBI dossier. His entire family — his heroic activist-in-her-own-right wife Tina, their four children and Tina’s mother died in a suspicious fire on their reservation in Nevada just twelve hours after John burned a US flag at FBI headquarters in DC. It’s preposterous to claim that Trudell would falsely accuse anyone. Given the facts, attacks like those on heroes like John Trudell, Dino Butler and Russell Means and, by extension Leonard Peltier, by the EF!J and other Graham supporters are beyond unworthy.
MICHAEL DONNELLY has known, respected and supported John Trudell and numerous others involved in this saga for over 20 years. Please see the exceptional documentary "Trudell."
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org