Murder of Anna Mae Aquash Unsolved After 23 Years

By Eric Anderssen

When Anna Mae Aquash was buried, women from the Pine Ridge Reservation dug her grave themselves in the March cold.

Her body was wrapped in a traditional star quilt and a medicine man presided at the funeral. More than 100 people came in a snowfall to show their respect for the Canadian Micmac whose tombstone reads, “Woman Warrior at Wounded Knee.”

Twenty-three years later, friends still leave remembrance at her grave: a broken cigarette to bring good will, a piece of sweet grass, a turtle rattle.

Ms. Aquash grew up poor in Nova Scotia, but she became a powerful voice in the American Indian Movement.

She came to Pine Ridge to join the AIM protest at Wounded Knee in 1973, and stayed to fight for native rights on this struggling reservation in southwestern Dakota.

Then in June of 1975, tension on the reservation peaked after two federal agents came to the town of Ogala to investigate a pair of stolen cowboy boots. They and one AIM member died in a gunfight.

By late summer, the AIM leaders Ms. Aquash knew best were on the run. And US Federal Bureau of Investigation was hunting her, intent on finding witnesses to the shooting.

Backed by the federal government, tribal council chairman Richard Wilson had his private police force prowling the reservation openly at war with anyone connected to AIM.

Worst of all, people within the movement were whispering questions about Ms. Aquash’s loyalty. Some said she was a snitch.

Back in Shubenecadie, N.S., her eldest sister, Rebecca, begged her to come home. But as frightened as she was, she refused to leave. Her friends said she had started predicting her own death. In her last letter to Rebecca that fall, she wrote: “I know that sooner or later I’m going to be killed.”

During the months after the June killings, she tried to keep a low profile, but she was arrested twice. She was quickly released on bail – fuelling the rumors about her being an informant. In November, she fled to Denver to hide out at a friend’s house.

Three months later, on Feb. 24, 1976, Anna Mae Aquash’ s body was found at the bottom of a ravine near a desolate reservation highway on the edge of the badlands of South Dakota. She had been shot, execution-style, with the muzzle of the gun pressed into the back of her neck.

No one has ever been charged with her killing. After a botched autopsy, the FBI investigation went nowhere. Grand juries heard testimony but produced no indictments.

While her death made headlines in the United States, it was largely ignored in Canada, beyond a few calls for justice from the federal government and the odd query in the House of Commons.

But in the past few years, a new investigation has developed a shocking theory about how – and why – Ms. Aquash died. The trail has taken detectives from the reservation where she died in South Dakota to the house in Denver where she was hiding, to the doorstep of a native Canadian in Whitehorse who is thought to have information about the case and is being watched by the RCMP.

Investigators now believe that the people who shot Ms. Aquash came from within the very movement she left her family to join. They claim to be close to laying charges.

Roger Amiotte found the rotting body of a woman on a mild February afternoon in 1976. He had gone out to sight a new fence line for his 1,215-hectare ranch on the Pine Ridge Reservation to stop his cattle from drifting across the highway.

The body lay at the bottom of a steep ravine, 30 metres from the road, in the path he had planned for his new fence. She was curled in the snow, as though she had fallen asleep.

The woman was wearing blue jeans, sneakers and a burgundy jacket. She was lying on her side with her knees bent, near a curve in a dry creek bed. She had a turquoise bracelet on her left arm. Her hair covered her face, but she had been there long enough that her skin had turned gray and the animals had eaten her nose and right ear.

Mr. Amiotte never went close enough to touch her. He drove home and called the police.

Two decades of wind and rain have changed the Badlands, and Mr Amiotte can no longer find the exact spot. He has taken so many police investigators and reporters out to the site that the story bores him.

He sat cross-legged in the wheat grass a safe distance from the cliff, dribbled a line of tobacco into a sheet of rolling paper and waited to to give the same answers to the same old questions. “It don’t take long to see a dead body,” he drawled. “But you sure ain’t expecting it. A dead cow, you can kind of see.”

The day after Mr. Amiotte’s discovery, pathologist W.O. Brown conducted an autopsy for the F.B.I., which is responsible for investigating all suspicious deaths on U.S. reservations.
He concluded that the woman, whom no one could identify, had died of exposure seven to 10 days earlier.

There was no sign of a violent death, he wrote in his reports. Most remarkably, he noted that her scalp and skull appeared normal, that there was nothing unusual about her brain.

Her hands were cut off and sent to the bureau’s lab in Washington to see if the fingertips turned up a match.

On March 2, the woman was buried in a pauper’s grave in a Roman Catholic cemetery. The next day, thanks to the fingertips, she was identified as 30-year-old Anna Mae Aquash.

Her friends and family immediately started asking questions.

Nothing made sense.

Ms. Aquash would never have traveled into the Badlands alone, they said. And if she had, she had lived in the cold enough to survive bad weather. There was no alcohol or drugs in her system to explain how she could have died of exposure.

And how was it that no one recognized her at the hospital, when one of the FBI agents who saw her body had questioned her only a few months before?

Rumors of an FBI cover-up mushroomed at Pine Ridge.

Few people believed the argument that Ms. Aquash had gone unidentified because of decomposition, and there was talk that federal agents had killed the AIM activist to set an example, then chopped off her hands to scare others.

Others – including the FBI – spoke of another motive, suggesting that she may have been killed by AIM supporters because of suspicions that she had snitched to federal agents.

Her family pushed for an exhumation and on March 11, a second autopsy was performed by Dr. Gary Peterson, an independent pathologist.

It took minutes for him to discover a .32-caliber bullet lodged in her left cheekbone. The bullet had tracked through her brain and lodged in her cheek.

It seemed incredible that it had been missed; hospital staff told the FBI that they had noticed dried blood on the back of Ms. Aquash’s neck and even felt a wound when she was brought in by the ambulance. They assumed that the coroner would find it. Dr. Brown said later that he “inadvertently overlooked” the bullet wound.

The Pine Ridge Reservation, home of the Ogela Sioux. lies at the bottom of South Dakota, a land of clay hills, and hailstorms fierce enough to spider-crack car windshields. It borders on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, and they are both a collection of small, struggling towns divided by stretches of empty highways. People are poor and many live in run-down trailers.

The roads are lined with state signs that ask “Why Die?” and mark the spot of fatal car accidents. Nothing brands the land clearly as a reservation, except the Sioux-language stop signs in the town of Pine Ridge, which reads Inajin.

In 1973, a group of traditionalists on the reservation appealed to the leaders of AIM for help. They were trying to impeach Richard Wilson, the new tribal chairman, who amid charges of nepotism and vote buying had failed to hold public council meetings and done nothing to stop ongoing uranium leases for white companies on reservation land.

Stridently anti-AIM Mr. Wilson had used government funds to create a private police force on the reserve, dubbed the “goon squad” by many residents because of its brutality. The force appropriated the name as an acronym for” Guardians of the Ogala Nations.” In the war against AIM and GOONs were the tribal chairman’s army. Drive-by shootings became common and scores of Indians were estimated to have been killed from 1973 to 1975.

On Feb. 27, 1973, after attempts to impeach Mr. Wilson had failed, a large group of angry Sioux and AIM leaders assembled a caravan of cars and drove out to the small reservation town of Wounded Knee. It was a symbolic decision: in 1890, a cavalry troop had opened fire on a Sioux encampment at the site and massacred an estimated 350 men, women and children.

This time, the Indians seized a white-owned trading post and the Roman Catholic church. FBI agents and US Marshals swarmed to the scene and set up roadblocks to cut off access. They were equipped with high-powered rifles, helicopters and tanks for bunkers. The protesters refused to leave, and the standoff soon became a symbol of native resistance.

Watching the news in Boston, a young Canadian Micmac named Anna Mae Pictou was captivated. How could she not get involved in something that might make a better future for her two daughters, then still toddlers? She would later tell her friends.

March 10, 1973, was her last day on the assembly line of the General Motors plant in Framingham, Mass. She left her daughters in a sister’s care in Boston, and with her boyfriend, Nogeeshik Aquash, a Chippewa from Ontario, drove to South Dakota. Carrying food and supplies, they slipped past the police barricades and joined AIM protest at Wounded Knee.

Life for the protestors was hard; not planning to stay long, they had brought little with them.

Scarcity was nothing new to Ms. Aquash who was born on March 27, 1945, and grew up poor on the Pictou Landing reserve near the Northumberland Strait. Living in a rickety house without plumbing or electricity, she had learned early to lug water and chop wood, and to get by on potatoes at dinner.

She was always the last to get sick among her three siblings, and though she never stood taller than 5-foot-2. She was tough enough to win fights with the boys at school.

She dropped out of school before finishing Grade 9, and joined the annual summer migration from the reserve to pick blueberries in Maine. From there, she traveled with another Micmac named Jake Maloney to Boston. The couple had two daughters, and eventually married, but it didn’t work out.

Three years later, she fell in with the city’s native activists, including Nogeeshik Aquash. She helped to form the Boston Indian Council, which planned the protest on the Mayflower II on Thanksgiving Day in 1970. By the time the AIM moved into Wounded Knee on Feb. 27, 1973, it would only make sense that she would go.

In South Dakota, she quickly became known for her organizing skills and her passionate idealism; on several occasions, she slipped by federal agents and sneaked fresh supplies into the encampment. She was outspoken and intelligent, keen to talk of treaties while the other women spent their time rolling cigarettes for the men. Days after arriving at Wounded Knee, she and Mr. Aquash were married in traditional native ceremony.

The standoff ended after 71 days, with two native men killed by government gunfire and several others wounded; the people who remained inside Wounded Knee were arrested.

In the most high-profile case, AIM leaders Dennis Banks and Russell Means were acquitted on several charges of conspiracy and assault. Ms. Aquash, who had left before the protest ended, faced a minor charge for violating reservation law. In 1973, the Aquashes traveled to Ottawa and the next year, she helped to organize a native fashion show staged at the National Arts Centre.