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How the New York Times Covered for the FBI's Bloody Role in Indian Country

The Ghost of Anna Mae

by STEVEN HENDRICKS

I once wrote that if there was a hell, it must have an endowed wing for the press of South Dakota. That was only because our nation’s paper of record, printer of all the news that The Establishment sees fit to print, already had hell’s main building. For my money, the most recent infernal sin of the New York Times was an article in its magazine on the 1976 murder of Anna Mae Aquash, an activist of the American Indian Movement. The reporter, Eric Konigsberg, condemned the AIM members who were involved in the killing, as well he should have, but let the federal government off the hook for their mighty role in the murder, which was journalistically unpardonable. I don’t know whether Konigsberg is a naïf or a tool of the feds—in a way it hardly matters. What matters is that for decades the feds in general and the FBI in particular have not only gotten away with their part in sabotaging the movement for Indian rights but in recent years have reaped a mound of favorable press from their sorry history. Thanks to the likes of Konigsberg and the uncritical-as-usual editors at the Times, the proud tradition goes on.

Here are the facts:

In the winter of 1973, activists of the American Indian Movement seized the hamlet of Wounded Knee and held it for 71 days against all-comers. In addition to its historic symbolism, they chose Wounded Knee because it was on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, whose woes were many. Pine Ridge was governed by a corrupt tribal council that ran the place for the benefit of people who profiteered off the desperately poor Lakotas. The exploiters were chiefly whites and the minority of Indians who had married into white families. Some of them were businesspeople who charged exorbitant rates in remote reservation communities for everything from peas to propane. Some were farmers and ranchers who leased land from the tribe for the merest fraction of what it was worth (the Cliven Bundys of Pine Ridge). And some were politicians and bureaucrats, a semi-nepotistic network that rigged elections and made sure that government jobs—the main source of work on Pine Ridge and nearly the only source of decently paid work—went to sell-outs and keep-your-head-down types who didn’t buck the degenerate system.

AIM also chose Pine Ridge because it was in the shadow of the Black Hills, which, of course, were stolen from Indians in so villainous a breach of treaty that even a federal appeals court concluded, “A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealing will never, in all probability, be found in our history.” The Supreme Court upheld the ruling—but refused to give even a smidgen of the hills back, which outrages Indians to this day. Pine Ridge, of course, was merely emblematic. The wreckage there was mirrored on nearly all of the hundreds of reservations throughout Indian Country.

This, naturally, was pretty much how the federal government wanted it. Good folk, hard-working folk, non-welfare-sponging folk, pioneering folk—white folk—were making money off Indian land and on Indian backs, so who could get excited if the result was that Pine Ridge was the poorest slum in America, poorer than the worst barrios of Compton or the Bronx or the South Side. So when AIM declared it was taking back Wounded Knee, with an eye to taking back more and righting centuries of wrongs, the feds responded as though South Dakota had been invaded by Red China. They sent in paramilitary units of the U.S. Marshals. They sent in armed-to-the-fangs FBI agents. They sent in cops of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and officers of the Border Patrol. They even, covertly, sent in the U.S. Army and Air Force, in violation of the Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibited the use of the military on American soil. The state of South Dakota, which had no jurisdiction on Pine Ridge, sent some troopers to buttress the cordon around the village. And Pine Ridge’s thug of a tribal chairman, Dick Wilson, gathered an illegal goon squad, paid them with money skimmed from government coffers, and worked fist-in-glove with the feds, who didn’t care about so small a thing as illegal vigilantism when there were activists at Wounded Knee to quash.

When the siege finally ended—three activists having been killed and a U.S. marshal paralyzed—the FBI and federal prosecutors dogged AIM all over the country with the hope of intimidating and prosecuting it out of existence. The FBI’s part was a vast and vastly illegal network of surveillance (in one AIM chapter in California, a majority of the unquietgravedozen or so active members were actually FBI informers), while the U.S. Attorneys’ Office used whatever dirt the FBI dug up to brought charges against activists for every conceivable offense, large or small, real and fabricated. On Pine Ridge, Wilson’s goons administered brutal beatings to anyone who dared oppose his reign, and state and federal prosecutors turned the blindest of eyes when those who were beaten sought redress in court.

It was hard to believe that matters could turn worse, but they did after two FBI agents were killed in 1975 in a shootout with AIM activists at Oglala on Pine Ridge. The FBI undertook the largest manhunt in its history, and the prosecutions of the U.S. Attorneys’ office, thentofore merely cruel, turned savage and still more perjurious than before. In consequence, Leonard Peltier was railroaded into prison on the thinnest of evidence and thickest of racism, and the FBI redoubled its efforts to break AIM.

Against this background, on February 24, 1976, a Jane Doe was found frozen in the Badlands of South Dakota, a few paces from the Pine Ridge Reservation. The FBI sent agents to the scene. In the Bureau’s story, they saw no sign of violence to the body, and a government coroner ruled she had died of exposure. The corpse was so decayed, the government later said, that fingerprints could not be taken, so, in an unusual procedure, the hands were chopped off and shipped to the FBI lab in Washington. A few days later, the FBI ordered the supposedly rotting body to be hurriedly buried for the sake of public health. The grave was unmarked.

Hours after the interment, the FBI lab announced that the severed hands belonged to Anna Mae Aquash, one of the few women leaders of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and something of a nemesis of the FBI. Aquash’s friends and family, incredulous that the savvy Aquash had taken an under-dressed midwinter stroll in the middle of nowhere, only to succumb to the cold, demanded the body be exhumed. It was—and seconds after seeing it, a pathologist who had been hired by the family found a grossly obvious entrance wound at the base of Aquash’s skull. Anna Mae Aquash had died of exposure, alright: exposure to a .32-caliber, copper-jacketed bullet.

In time it would emerge that the FBI had lied about whether police officers and FBI agents had seen the bullet wound, about the impossibility of taking her fingerprints in Dakota (and thus the need to dismember her), about the need to rush her corpse into the ground, and probably about whether agents knew all along that the Jane Doe was Aquash. Indians theorized that the FBI had lied to protect someone or something, perhaps an FBI operative who had been too close to the murder. It was not an irrational suspicion. In addition to the informers it sent into AIM, the FBI also sent provocateurs, as it had with the Black Panthers and other activist groups of the era. The job of the provocateurs was to sow dissent, for example by spreading rumors that real activists were informers. Often as not, the activists descended into finger-pointing and paranoia. Movements imploded. In some cases, people were killed. Documents show the FBI was only to happy to have all that violence unleashed. Aquash, long dogged by false rumors that she was an informer, appeared to be a victim of just such an atmosphere.

Years passed. The murder was not solved. There was no sign that prosecutors were working on it. But as the decades wore on, the suspicion that the FBI had something to hide did not diminish. There were rumblings that the feds had the evidence to solve the murder but didn’t want to. The FBI called the conjecture hogwash: its agents had no clue—almost literally—how Aquash had been killed. But documents I won from the FBI in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit say otherwise. Those documents, obtained for my book The Unquiet Grave: The FBI and the Struggle for the Soul of Indian Country (2006), show that mere days after Aquash’s murder, an informer in Denver told the FBI some of the details of the killing. AIM, the informer said, had kidnapped an Indian woman in Denver, driven her to South Dakota, interrogated her, and executed her. The informer even named the alleged triggerman and his two accomplices—names the FBI redacted in the documents. Independent investigations would eventually show that the informer got the story pretty much right. The only key detail he left out was that the murderous trio had acted at the behest of AIM leaders who had become paranoid about FBI infiltrators and thought Aquash was one.

So ask yourself: If this occurred at a time when the FBI was doing everything it could to crush AIM, especially by prosecuting its members for any possible crime, why, when told that AIM had committed a murder, did the FBI and federal prosecutors do nothing with the tip? The documents even show that after Aquash’s body was found, the FBI checked whether the tip was accurate and found that it was. But still it did nothing. Nothing at all. The inaction is both stunning and damning: For decades the FBI and federal prosecutors had lied that it could not solve the murder because it had no good leads.

The case remained dormant until the eve of the millennium—until, in 1999, lay investigators who had been looking into the case publicly named the three AIM members who carried out the killing. Only then, it seems, did federal prosecutors reopen the investigation, and in 2003 they finally indicted two of the three killers. (The third was let off easy because of her advanced age and ill health.) Arlo Looking Cloud and John Graham, both low-level foot soldiers in AIM, were eventually convicted of the killing and sentenced to long terms. No charges, however, have ever been brought against the higher-ups in AIM who ordered the murder. Nor have the feds mentioned a word about the FBI’s role engendering their conspiracy. Was this because an FBI operative was among the conspirators? Did the feds simply not care to air how they had turned AIM upon itself and helped kill the movement (about which not a word was said in Looking Cloud’s and Graham’s trials), just as it had done with the Black Panthers?

Maybe so, maybe not. It’s impossible to say. Two things I can say:

One is that two well-placed sources have said that one of the AIM members who took part in talks about Aquash’s fate had at least offered to spy for the FBI. Since this man had been deeply involved with the AIM members who killed the two FBI agents at Oglala, and since the FBI left no grain unturned in its hunt for the killers, it is hard to imagine that the FBI would have turned down his offer, if offer he did.

The second thing I can say is that you’ll find almost none of the above in the Times Magazine. Konigsberg’s article vaguely mentions that the FBI wasn’t fond of AIM, but of the feds’ malfeasance he says nary a word. To take just one example, here is what he says in the article’s lede about the feds’ handling of Aquash’s body:

A coroner later determined that the woman had been dead for more than two months. The back of her head was matted with blood, and there was a single bullet wound at the base of her skull. She had been shot at close range. It would take investigators a week to identify the body as that of 30-year-old Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, a principal in the American Indian Movement.

Not a word about the coroner’s having “missed” the bullet and ruling her death was caused by exposure. Not a word about the cops or FBI agents who had seen the bullet wound. Not a word about the government’s hasty burial. Not a word about the fact that she could have been identified by taking her prints in South Dakota instead of chopping off her hands and sending them to DC. Not a word, for that matter, about chopping off her hands.

The article continues in the same maddening vein: Wicked AIM did this, wicked AIM did that, the poor feds had no leads, finally they got some, AIM veterans were sour about coping with the emerging truth, at last the prosecutors got the bad guys. Case closed. Justice served. Konigsberg barely quoted anyone with a critical view of the government and never quoted anyone calling out the government’s lies about how they handled of the case. Nor did he, if you’ll forgive some immodesty here, quote me or my book, which is the most authoritative book on the Aquash case. I am by no means the only source worth consulting. For example, the work of the anti-AIM, pro-government publisher of News From Indian Country, Paul Demain, whom Konigsberg quoted (and should have), is a trove of worthy information. But I am nearly the only authoritative source who is critical of both AIM and the government. Would I be amiss in guessing that mine was not a viewpoint that Konigsberg found convenient to his story? Certainly his editors thought as much, since they did not even reply to my letter attempting to correct a few of his biases.

Not for the first time, then, history has been written by the victors. On the bright side, it’s good to know that Konigsberg and the Times Magazine are out there if I ever want to pitch a story about, say, how those pesky Occupy protestors should be getting seven-year sentences for resisting police assault.

Steve Hendricks is the author of The Unquiet Grave: The FBI and the Struggle for the Soul of Indian Country, which made several best-of-the-year lists in 2006.