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.

Vernon Bellecourt disputes the story. He points out that Robideau has close ties to Means, and that Peltier has denied participating in any such interrogation. But he acknowledges that he was intimately involved in AIM's internal security. After Wounded Knee, he says, he assumed responsibilities for seeking out infiltrators and informers within the movement, and he relishes describing how he "busted" Durham. Bellecourt insists he never took action against Aquash, nor ordered any taken.

"We had to have suspicions about a lot of people," he explains. "At the time at least two people came forward and told us that the FBI attempted to recruit them. But I was cognizant of the fact that there was a lot of paranoia, and that it wasn't without reason. I think I just took the information and tried to sort it out."

 

On February 24, 1976, a rancher named Roger Amiotte discovered a woman's body in a remote ravine on Pine Ridge. The FBI dispatched the corpse to a contract pathologist, who concluded that the woman--found wearing a windbreaker, jeans, and canvas shoes--had died of exposure. He severed the hands at the wrist (an act many later interpreted as deliberate desecration) and turned them over to the FBI. "Jane Doe" was quickly and quietly buried in an unmarked grave in a mission cemetery.

A week later a fingerprint analysis in Washington, D.C., identified the dead woman as Anna Mae Aquash, who had not been seen in at least two months. The body was exhumed and an independent pathologist--brought in at the urging of the Aquash family--performed a second autopsy. That examination revealed Aquash had been shot with a .38 caliber bullet, fired at close range into the back of her head. Evidence suggested that she might have been raped.

The botched first autopsy and the FBI's failure to promptly identify Aquash, who had been detained by agents at least three times in the previous year, fueled widespread suspicions of a government cover-up. Many in the movement concluded that Aquash was killed in retaliation for the two agent deaths at Jumping Bull. (The FBI has consistently denied any involvement, and shortly after Aquash's murder, then-FBI director Clarence Kelley took the unusual step of declaring that she had not been an informer.)

Very early on there were also rumors that AIM was involved in the slaying. In his book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, author Peter Mathiessen quotes AIM leader Dennis Banks as saying that he called off an internal investigation into Aquash's death because "if it was true that AIM was involved, it would crush the movement."

Means says he paid little attention to suggestions of AIM involvement, and he made no mention of Aquash in his 1995 memoir, Where White Men Fear to Tread. "I always thought that the rumors were instigated by the feds' rumor mill--either by agents or agents provocateurs or federal snitches," he says. "So I never took it seriously. I figured that's the cost of doing business for the American Indian Movement."

Paul DeMain did take the rumors seriously. The editor and publisher of the Hayward, Wisconsin-based newspaper News from Indian Country has been keeping files on the Aquash case since the news of her murder first broke. Back then he was a journalism student at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He was intrigued by the case largely because of the allegations about FBI
complicity.

Like many of the people interested in the matter, DeMain says he was driven by a sense of spiritual connection to Aquash. And he identified with the predicament that preceded her death: In 1975, while working as a student reporter, he had spent some time covering an AIM-backed occupation on the Menominee reservation in Wisconsin. One night, he says, he was hanging around with some of the protesters at a rural cabin.

"It was just a big party," DeMain recalls. "I was sitting on the couch and everyone left the room but one individual, who went into the kitchen. All of a sudden he comes out and, lo and behold, there's an AR-15 pointed at me. And he says, 'Who are you? We know you've been taking notes and making records.'" Scrambling to establish his credibility, DeMain mentioned the name of a respected figure from the Menominee Warrior Society with whom he had been staying. "If I wouldn't have had that connection, there's a good possibility I could have been buried back outside that cabin," he says. "That was the atmosphere of 1975."

In 1994 DeMain began an extensive investigation with the assistance of two other reporters, interviewing some 50 sources and reviewing much of the 17,000-some pages of declassified FBI documents concerning AIM. (Another 6,000 pages, some thought to relate to the Aquash case, remain classified; last year the Native American Journalists Association petitioned, unsuccessfully, for their release.) For years, DeMain says, sources were reluctant to talk. But amid the dead ends and false leads, just enough bits of evidence surfaced to keep him going.

In 1996 he interviewed Dennis Banks on a march supporting Leonard Peltier. "When I started talking about it with him he welled up and couldn't speak for a while," recalls DeMain. "I had a few names already and he didn't deny anything. And he said, 'You've got to keep asking questions, keep searching.'

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