Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Pine Ridge Post-Script: The Assassination of Anna Mae Aquash

She would have turned sixty this year, but in the temporal world of human affairs she will ever be remembered as a vibrant, impassioned thirty-year-old mother and political activist. Born Anna Mae Pictou on March 27, 1945, in Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia, Canada, Aquash, a full-blood Micmac Indian, became in death an enigmatic symbol of the sorrowful savagery which befell South Dakota and the entire Native American community in the 1970s.

Francis Thomas Levi abandoned a pregnant Mary Ellen Pictou in 1944, leaving the expectant mother to support her new baby on the skills of a third grade education. Anna Mae was born into a life of abject poverty and disease (suffering from tuberculosis of the eye and lung) but spared a childhood of emotional deprivation when her mother married Noel Sapier, a Micmac traditionalist, in 1949. Sapier moved the family to the small Micmac settlement of Pictou's Landing, Nova Scotia, where he taught Anna Mae the value of Micmac heritage while working farmhand jobs and creating native craftworks. The positive paternal influence proved to be short-lived when Sapier died of cancer in 1956.

Unable to cope with the loss of her husband, Mary Ellen impulsively married Wilford Barlov, a Micmac from a neighboring reserve, and abandoned Anna Mae and her older siblings. Needing to earn money for survival, and thus unable to remain in school, Anna Mae became a mirgrant farmhand, harvesting potatoes and berries, before moving to Boston with her boyfriend, fellow Micmac Jake Maloney, at age 17. By the mid-'60s and married to Maloney, Anna Mae had given birth to two daughters, Denise and Deborah. The family eked out a living while honoring the roots of their Micmac heritage, guided by Jake's step-uncle, one of the remaining traditionalists.

In 1968 Anna Mae, who had separated from Maloney, supplemented a factory job by working for the Boston Indian Council helping young, urban Native Americans struggling with issues of self-esteem and alcohol abuse. Hearing of a rights protest planned by AIM (American Indian Movement) leader Russell Means, Anna Mae felt strongly moved to participate. The protest entailed demonstrating against the "official" version of Thanksgiving by converging on the Mayflower II, a reconstruction of the Pilgrims' vessel.

Following her first taste of overt political activism, Anna Mae moved her daughters to Bar Harbor, Maine, where she taught in the Teaching and Research in Bicultural Education School Project (TRIBES). The program sought to equip the upcoming Native generation by combining standard, cross-cultural classroom curriculum with Indian history and practices. The effort proved very successful but was discontinued in 1972 when program funding was cut. Returning to Boston, Anna Mae attend Wheelock College and worked at a daycare center in the predominantly African-American Massachusetts community of Roxbury. When recognized for her work in Roxbury with an offer of a full scholarship to Brandeis University, Anna Mae declined, preferring to continue her work in the African American and Native communities, a decision that would prove fateful as cultural and personal influences converged in her life.

Meeting Nogeeshik Aquash, a Chippewa artist from Ontario, Anna Mae found a partner who embodied her sense of Native community combined with her personal needs as a woman and mother. Together they raised Anna Mae's daughters and became staunch activists, marching in Washington, D.C. during the 1972 Trail of Broken Treaties.

The following year, in April, 1973, the couple's sense of duty was aroused by the fervor stirred when AIM occupied the settlement of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, which had been the site of an infamous massacre of Minneconjou Sioux by General George Custer's regiment of the Seventh Cavalry. The purpose of the Wounded Knee sit-in was to take a stand against the corrupt administration of tribal chairman of the Oglala Sioux, Richard "Dick" Wilson. Anna Mae and Nogeeshik participated in the occupation of Wounded Knee by getting food and medical supplies to the squatters. According to biographical information posted at http://www.nativemetiswomenscouncil.com, "they camped at Crow Dog's Paradise, the home of medicine men Henry Crow Dog and Leonard Crow Dog. Later, inside one of the stores at Wounded Knee, Anna Mae would help deliver Pedro, the first son of Mary Brave Bird, who would soon marry Leonard Crow Dog. On April 12, 1973, Pictou married Nogeeshik Aquash in a traditional Lakota (Sioux) ceremony presided over by Nicholas Black Elk and Wallace Black Elk."

Following the siege at Wounded Knee, in which the U.S. government indicted AIM leaders Dennis Banks, and Russell Means, Anna Mae participated in the Menominee Indian seizure of an abandoned Alexian Brothers Catholic Monastery in Gresham, Wisconsin. The incident, designed to protest the termination of Menominee federal Indian status, galvanized Anna Mae's Indian Rights militancy and placed her squarely in the F.B.I. spotlight of suspectetd subversives.

1975 proved to be the turning point for Aquash. She spent time on the Native frontlines of the American west, first with AIM security chief Leonard Peltier at a conference in Farmington, New Mexico designed to aid Navajos in their protest of mining in the Four Corners region, and then at Pine Ridge to organize security for Lakota protestors. Conjunct with Anna Mae's stay in South Dakota, two F.B.I. agents, Jack Collier, and Ronald Williams, and a young Indian, Joseph Stuntz, were killed when violence erupted on June 26, 1975, at Wounded Knee.

In September, 1975, Aquash was arrested during a raid on the Rosebud Reservation. Anna Mae jumped bail and fled to the Port Madison Reservation in Washington state. Near the Idaho border, Aquash was again arrested while attempting to leave the reservation by van. Extradited to South Dakota to face charges from the raid at Rosebud, as well as federal charges of transporting and possessing firearms and dynamite, she again fled on November 24, 1975. It was the last time any of her friends or family would see her alive.

Anna Mae's badly decomposed body was discovered by a Lakota rancher on the edge of his property near Pine Ridge. The autopsy, performed at the Pine Ridge Public Health Service cited the cause of death as "exposure", and due to the state of the cadaver's deterioration she was initially listed as a "Jane Doe" and buried anonymously, but not before her hands were cut off and sent to Washington in a further effort to ascertain identity. A week later it was determined that the hands belonged to Anna Mae Aquash and after exhumation and re-examination of the corpse
the death was officially ruled a homicide when a .32 caliber bullet hole was discovered at the base of the skull.

Burial services were performed at the Pine Ridge Reservation in March, 1976, presided over by a tribal medicine man. Anna Mae's body was wrapped in a traditional star quilt and more than one hundred people braved the bitter winter weather to pay homage to the woman whose tombstone is marked with the words "Women Warrior at Wounded Knee." Anna Mae has since been honored in literature in writer Johanna Brand's The Life and Death of Anna Mae Aquash published by Lorimer in 1978, as well as in the words of Native American folksinger Buffy Sainte-Marie in her song Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee:

"My girlfriend Annie Mae talked about uranium
Her head was filled with bullets and her body dumped
The FBI cut off her hands and told us she'd died of exposure
Loo loo loo loo loo"

After 29 years and countless speculation about who was responsible for the death of Anna Mae Aquash, a federal jury, in Rapid City, South Dakota, convicted Arlo Looking Cloud of the first-degree murder of Pictou-Aquash. In December 2003, John Graham was also arrested in Vancouver as an accomplice in the killing of Pictou-Aquash. It has been speculated that Anna Mae was silenced because she knew intimate truths about the identities of those responsible for the deaths of the F.B.I. agents at Wounded Knee in 1975.

Perhaps the most incisive eulogy to the life and works of Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash can be expressed in her own words of steely indignation and commitment: "These white people think this country belongs to them. They don't realize that they are only in charge right now because there's more of them than there are of us. The whole country changed with only a handful of raggedy-ass pilgrims that came over here in the 1500s. And it can take a handful of raggedy-ass Indians to do the same, and I intend to be one of those raggedy-ass Indians."