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Unfinished business in Indian country

A revolutionary fighting oppression, killed with a bullet in the back of the head by her erstwhile comrades who suspected her of being an informant. Palestine? Northern Ireland? No, this was America's Midwest.

BBC News Online
Monday, February 2, 2004, 12:34 GMT
Chris Summers


Anna Mae Aquash was an activist with the American Indian Movement (AIM), which was fighting for the rights of the indigenous people of the United States.

This week one of her former AIM colleagues goes on trial in Rapid City, South Dakota charged with her murder. The trial of Arlo Looking Cloud, 49, is likely to reopen plenty of old wounds.

A second man, John Boy Graham, who allegedly fired the fatal shot, is fighting extradition from Canada.

The body of the 30-year-old Micmac Indian was found in a remote corner of the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota in February 1976.

Arlo Looking Cloud, accused of killing Anna Mae in 1975

It is claimed she was killed because of rumours she was an FBI informant.

'Exploitation and persecution'

In the 1970s a new group was born which was determined to fight proactively for the rights of the Native American people who, it claimed, had been persecuted and exploited for so long by "white" America.

AIM took on the mantle of legendary Indian leaders such as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.

AIM grew rapidly and began to challenge the authority of the FBI, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the tame Indian tribal councils who, between them, had run things on the reservations for decades.

AIM wanted, among other things, to publicise the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty which ceded a vast swathe of South and North Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana to the Lakota (Sioux) people in perpetuity.

The treaty was later torn up and Lakotas were given worthless scraps of land to live on.

They were also evicted from the sacred Black Hills (Paha Sapa) in South Dakota, when the US Government realised they were a rich source of gold, coal, uranium and molybdenum.

Trouble in Indian Country
  • Feb-May 1973: AIM activists besieged at Wounded Knee, South Dakota
  • Jun 1975: Two FBI agents shot dead at Oglala, South Dakota
  • Nov 1975: Anna Mae Aquash goes missing from Denver, Colorado
  • Feb 1976: Anna Mae's body found near Wanblee, South Dakota
  • Apr 1977: Leonard Peltier given two consecutive life sentences for murdering FBI agents.
  • Feb 2004: Arlo Looking Cloud goes on trial accused of killing Anna Mae
Many Lakotas ended up on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota which, in the early 1970s, was run as a private fiefdom by a "half-breed" called Dick Wilson.

Pine Ridge was the home of the Oglala - one of seven Lakota clans - who descended from Crazy Horse.

In an attempt to highlight what they saw as the graft, nepotism and violence of Wilson's regime and to focus attention on the betrayal of the Fort Laramie Treaty, AIM activists occupied the town of Wounded Knee (scene of an infamous massacre of Indians in 1890) in 1973.
For 71 days armed AIM supporters were besieged by FBI agents, BIA police and Wilson supporters.

Eventually they surrendered after the US Government promised to investigate the corruption.

'Political prisoner'

Little was ever done and by the summer of 1975 violence against AIM activists on Pine Ridge was at record levels and the atmosphere was poisonous.

On 26 June 1975 two FBI agents, Ron Williams and Jack Coler, were killed by AIM gunmen during a shootout near the town of Oglala.

Two AIM men, Dino Butler and Bob Robideau, were acquitted but another, Leonard Peltier, was given two consecutive life sentences.

He continues to protest his innocence from Leavenworth penitentiary in Kansas and is considered a political prisoner by AIM.

The Lakota (Sioux) clans
  • Oglala
  • Brule
  • Hunkpapa
  • Miniconjous
  • Sans Arcs
  • Two Kettles
  • Blackfeet (not to be confused with the Blackfeet tribe from Montana)
He has also drawn support from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ann Robinson, the Dalai Lama and the Reverend Jesse Jackson.

'Like the Third world'

In September 1975 FBI agents investigating the murder of their colleagues at Oglala raided a property on the nearby Rosebud reservation.

Anna Mae was one of several people picked up, although she was later bailed. She jumped bail and headed for California but only got as far as Denver.

What happened to her after that remains uncertain.

In the quarter of a century since the events on the Pine Ridge reservation life has changed little for the Oglala and the other 4.3 million fellow native Americans. 

Anna Mae Aquash was suspected of being an FBI informant
Frank King, publisher of the Native Voice newspaper, said: "Most reservations are run like Third World countries by tribal elders who act like dictators. Some of them don't even allow freedom of speech."
Mr King, a Lakota who hails from the Rosebud reservation, said many Indians lived in a welfare culture and the Crow Creek reservation in South Dakota had the highest unemployment rate in the US.

He said alcoholism and obesity were also endemic on most reservations and he blamed it on a "poverty of the mind".

"Most reservations are run like Third World countries by tribal elders who act like dictators. Some of them don't even allow freedom of speech"

Frank King
Native Voice

"Tribes have come to the point where they have created a business out of being poor and they are just looking for handouts," said Mr King.
As for AIM, it has become fractured between different factions and Mr King said: "The main AIM is a federally funded charity with a board of directors and they're always looking for money. It's just lost the spirit of the thing."

One of the founders of AIM, Russ Means, said the organisation was targeted by the FBI's Counter Intelligence Program, which was used to destroy groups like the Black Panthers and the Puerto Rican liberaton movement.

In December 2000 FBI agents protested against Peltier being pardoned
Speaking from his ranch on the Pine Ridge reservation he said: "The colonialism of the US Government has led to genocide. We now have the lowest life expectancy in the Western Hemisphere, despite sitting on some of the most valuable minerally rich land in the world. The US Government has stolen $50bn of our money."


Copyright BBC News On-Line 2004