Bury My Heart

For years it has been whispered that the 1976 slaying of American Indian Movement activist Anna Mae Aquash was an inside job. Now a new rash of accusations aims squarely at local heroes Clyde and Vernon Bellecourt.

Freelance journalist Kevin McKiernan, who was the only reporter inside Wounded Knee and covered AIM extensively thereafter, says the transformation was helped along by the FBI. Since 1972, the bureau had been investigating AIM and its leaders, compiling extensive dossiers on the Bellecourts, Means, Banks, and others, and making heavy use of informers and infiltrators. The counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO for short, had proved remarkably effective against other Sixties radical groups the bureau deemed a threat to national security, including the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground.

"The senior agent in charge of South Dakota told me that between '73 and '76, the FBI ran 2,600 agents through the Pine Ridge reservation," McKiernan recalls. "That was their boot camp. They kicked in a lot of doors and they pushed a lot of people around. People were afraid on that reservation and the FBI was becoming more militant, and the hardcore segment of the American Indian Movement was becoming more militant too. It was like two trains bound to collide. And they did."

In the midst of the Wounded Knee siege, McKiernan shared a trailer with a young Micmac woman from Nova Scotia named Anna Mae Pictou. Pictou, who had snuck through security perimeters under cover of night, had first come to AIM through her work as a community organizer in Boston. During the standoff she married an artist and fellow activist, Nogeeshik Aquash. McKiernan recalls her as a lively, intelligent conversationalist with a sense of humor. "She was the only person I could make Indian jokes with, and then she'd make white jokes," he says.

After Wounded Knee tensions and violence escalated at Pine Ridge, then in the grips of a feud between "traditional" residents and a tribal leadership whose security force went by the official name of Guardians of the Oglala Nation, or GOONs. In the three years that followed, some 60 AIM members and traditionals were killed, according to the Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Team, which worked on behalf of those involved in the standoff.

By 1975 an AIM contingent had settled outside the village of Oglala in a traditional encampment called the Jumping Bull Compound. On June 26 two FBI agents arrived at Jumping Bull, allegedly to serve an arrest warrant for a teenager wanted on a robbery charge. A firefight ensued, and the two agents and one AIM member were killed.

Three men were ultimately tried in that case. Two were acquitted by an Iowa jury on the grounds of self-defense, while a third--Leonard Peltier--was convicted in a separate trial. His quest for a new trial or a presidential pardon has made headlines ever since.

According to accounts of those who were there, Aquash had been staying at the Jumping Bull compound with Peltier and the others until the day before the shootout, when she traveled to Des Moines to attend the trial of a fellow AIM activist. Nonetheless she was named as a suspect during the investigation into the agents' deaths, and the FBI kept a close eye on her.

Other eyes were on her as well. After Wounded Knee fear of informants within the movement reached a fever pitch. A few months before the Jumping Bull shootout, AIM security director Douglass Durham was exposed as a paid FBI operative, later testifying to his activities in a congressional hearing. A former Des Moines cop, Durham had aroused the suspicions of many AIM leaders, including Vernon Bellecourt and Russell Means; Means says he aired those concerns at an AIM-sponsored action in northern Wisconsin.

"Before I left," Means recalls, "I took Douglass Durham's van and I told Dennis [Banks], 'We think he's a fed. So tell him if he wants his van, he has to come to the Pine Ridge reservation to get it.'"

"I think everybody knew what that meant," he adds, "and I leave it to you to surmise. If Durham had been a real threat, he would have disappeared and quietly been buried somewhere. But he wasn't, so we exposed him to the news media. That was more valuable to us than taking care of him internally. But believe me, there was lots of paranoia in the movement."

That paranoia was exacerbated by a widely described COINTELPRO practice known as "bad-jacketing"--the suggestion made by an operative that another person was a snitch. Durham, according to many in AIM, applied the bad jacket to a number of people, including Aquash.

"Everyone had informeritis after [Durham's exposure]," says journalist McKiernan. "He put such a poison dart in the heart of AIM that the folks at COINTELPRO must have had a celebratory dinner after that.

"I don't know who killed [Aquash]," McKiernan adds. "But I know who designed the gun." Others note that rumors about Aquash gained currency in the movement when, in the final year of her life, she was twice arrested by the FBI and released on light bonds even though she was not a U.S. citizen.

Two months after Durham's exposure Aquash attended an AIM conference in Farmington, New Mexico. One of the two men ultimately acquitted in the Jumping Bull trials, Bob Robideau, has charged that Vernon Bellecourt had come to suspect that Aquash was an informer, and that he ordered Robideau, Peltier, and another man to interrogate her. If they believed she was guilty, Robideau has said, they were to bury her where she stood.

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