Murder in the American Indian Movement: 30 Years Later

Activist Annie Mae Aquash: killed by fellow radical activists.

A thirty-five year old murder case is taking place in Rapid City, South Dakota.  John Graham, a member of the American Indian Movement (AIM) was charged in the 7th Circuit Court with the 1975 murder of Annie Mae Pictou Aquash, a 30-year-old Canadian native and AIM activist. This is the third trial in the case. It began in 2003 with the arrest and trial of Fritz Arlo Looking Cloud and Graham, aka John Boy Patton. In 2008, a third man, Richard Marshall, was also indicted for murder. In 2009, Graham and a woman named Thelma Rios were charged with Aquash’s kidnapping and murder in South Dakota.  The results so far:  Looking Cloud was convicted of murder; Richard Marshall was acquitted; Thelma Rios pleaded guilty to accessory in Aquash’s kidnapping and received a suspended prison sentence; and John Graham is currently on trial.

How and why Ms. Aquash was killed remains in dispute.  Some members of the AIM movement believe the FBI murdered her, and then tried to cover up the crime by removing her hands to prevent identification and ruling the death an accident.  (The FBI says her hands were sent to Washington, D.C.  to help identify a body which was originally identified as a “Jane Doe” who died of exposure and was subsequently buried.  After Aquash was identified, a second autopsy determined she had been killed by a gunshot would to the back of the head.)  Others believe AIM themselves ordered her death, convinced she was an FBI informant.

Aquash was a dedicated member of the American Indian Movement, a Native American activist organization founded in 1968 by George Mitchell, Dennis Banks, and Clyde Bellecourt.  The original impetus of AIM was to respond to alleged incidents of police brutality committed against Native Americans in the Twin Cities in Minnesota.  Patrols were organized to make sure police acted properly when arrests of Native Americans were made.  Within four years, AIM was a national organization with over forty chapters, as frustration felt by many Indians regarding the federal government’s official policies, which they considered discriminatory, exponentially increased. AIM’s leaders had long insisted that bad federal policies led to high unemployment, slum housing, and racist treatment among Native Americans.

Public protests to raise public consciousness became their vehicle of choice.  Such protests began with a nineteen-month occupation of Alcatraz in 1969. In 1972, they conducted a “Trail of Broken Treaties” march on Washington, D.C., taking over the Bureau of Indian Affairs and demanding reform in the process.  As a result of their escalating activity, they drew the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which AIM members and their supporters claim turned into an orchestrated and ongoing effort to destroy the movement.

Two incidents in the 1970s garnered national attention.  On February 27th, 1973,  AIM members seized the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota due to a conflict among those Indians who supported the federal government, and those who wanted tribal autonomy.  The FBI and the U.S. Marshals Services surrounded the town, resulting a 71-day siege, in which both sides traded gunfire for months.  Aquash was one of the AIM activists who participated in the siege.  Two government agents were seriously wounded and two Indians were killed during the standoff.  After a series of negotiations, the occupiers relented.  Several arrests were made and AIM leaders Dennis Banks and Russell Means were put on trial.  In 1974, a federal judge dismissed charges against both men.

The second major incident, the Ogala Firefight of 1975, allegedly grew out of increasing tensions between the FBI and AIM which traced back to Wounded Knee.  On June 26th 1975, a gun battle at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota resulted in the deaths of FBI agents Jack Coler and Ron Williams.  A nationwide FBI manhunt to find the killer ensued, and AIM activist Leonard Peltier was captured and convicted of the crime. After several unsuccessful appeals, Peltier remains incarcerated at the U.S. Penitentiary, Lewisburg, PA.

Peltier is linked to the current trial.  Darlene “Kamook” Ecoffey testified that Annie Mae Aquash was one of the passengers traveling in a motor home in the fall of 1975 when Peltier confessed to killing Coler and Williams at Ogala.  ”He held his hand like this,” she testified during the current trial, pointing her index finger like a gun, “and he said ‘that (expletive) was begging for his life but I shot him anyway.‘”  It should be noted that Ms. Ecoffey was the former common-law wife of AIM leader Dennis Banks for 17 years–but is is now married to the chief investigator in the Aquash case.  It should also be noted that Judge Jack Delaney had originally ruled against allowing the jury to hear about Leonard Peltier’s alleged confession in front of Aquash, but reversed himself.

Under cross examination Ms. Ecoffey admitted she received $49,000 from the government which she said was given at the direction of the FBI agents “concerned for her safety.“ Defense attorney John Murphy also asked Ecoffey about a  taped conversation with convicted killer Looking Cloud in which Looking Cloud asked, “How many people should I implicate?” and Ecoffey said, “Only John Boy,” referring to Mr. Graham.

Looking Cloud himself also testified against Graham on Monday saying he, Graham and Clark kidnapped Aquash in Denver, and took her to Rapid City. He claimed he heard Graham and Aquash having sex in an apartment there, which prosecutors have alleged was rape.  The men then drove to Pine Ridge Reservation where they stopped on a dark highway. Graham and Aquash got out of the car. “I sat in the car and Theda told me, ‘Go with him,’” said Looking Cloud. “I proceeded to follow him.“  Looking Cloud then claimed he gave Graham the gun used to kill Aquash.  ”I seen (Graham) standing with Annie Mae, and then I seen him shoot her,” he said.  Yet Looking Cloud also testified that he was cooperating with the government in hopes of having his life sentence reduced and defense attorney Murphy noted that, of the 40 convictions Looking Cloud has incurred, 12 of those were “for providing false statements.”

Richard Marshall took the stand as well on Monday, after months of legal maneuvering to avoid testifying.  He had threatened to assert his right against self-incrimination, but since he was acquitted last April on charges connected with the case, prosecutors could offer him immunity from future charges and force him to testify. After claiming several times he couldn’t remember anything from so long ago, Marshall mentioned a December 1975 visit from Graham, Aquash, Looking Cloud and another AIM activist, Theda Clarke.  He claimed Clarke had “asked us to keep a woman”  (presumably Aquash).  When he and his former wife, Cleo Gates, refused, Clarke allegedly got angry.

Prosecutors believe Clarke was an accomplice in Aquash’s murder, but they offered her immunity if she would testify against Graham.  Now in her 80s and living in a nursing home, Clarke, without the jury present in the courtroom, refused to testify, exercising her Constitutional right against self-incrimination. Thelma Rios, who, as previously mentioned, pleaded guilty in November to being an accessory to the Aquash’s kidnapping, may also be called to testify.

This case is playing itself out in a courtroom that, like the other two cases, is packed with people.  Denise Maloney, Aquash’s eldest daughter, believes she knows why.  “I think what people are drawn to is that she represented unconditional justice,” Maloney said, characterizing her mother as a person dedicated to women’s rights, human rights and 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.”

Aforementioned AIM leader Russell Means was more direct.  “Anyone who kills a woman, and especially a mother, should be punished,” he said. “It’s that simple.”  Yet he was critical of the prosecution’s approach.  “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…They’re picking on defenseless people who are not consequential in the whole mosaic of the investigation.  Go after the people who are responsible.”

He also wonders why Theda Clarke hasn’t been charged in the case.  “Maybe they have a plan to ‘go up the ladder,’ so to speak. I just think that once they get the trigger man convicted, they should go after others. I hope that’s the plan.”

This statement indicates Means considers one or more people within the AIM organization are guilty.  Others believe either the federal government killed Aquash or that they allowed her to be set up by making it seem as if she were an informant.  Still other Native Americans are having a hard time reconciling the idea that the same FBI which treated their people unjustly for decades is now trying to get justice for Aquash and her family.

According to Infoshop News, which says it publishes “anarchist news, opinion and so much more,” convicted killer Leonard Peltier allegedly offered his own explanation on why Aquash was murdered: ”I never believed nor took seriously rumors that Anna Mae Aquash was an FBI informant. I believe instead that Anna Mae was killed because she was a skilled organizer and leader for our people.”

Daughter Denise Maloney just wants justice–wherever it leads. “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. Her spirit carries on in many people, because there’s a lot of people who talk about her,” she said.

“It’s not about winning,” she added.  ”We’ve all lost.”

Arnold Ahlert is a contributing columnist to the conservative website,