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.

"And then he said, 'You know, we believe the FBI set us up, that you'll find someone in the government that worked hand in hand to get us to that point.' He didn't say the GOONs killed her, and he didn't say the FBI killed her. He just said, 'Keep searching for the truth.'" (Banks could not be reached for comment.)

In 1997 DeMain published his first set of findings in News From Indian Country (www.indiancountrynews.com), sketching out a timeline for the final year of Aquash's life. According to DeMain, Aquash was kidnapped from a Denver home where she had been staying in December of 1975 and "questioned intensely" by some AIM members in Rapid City before being hauled out and executed. Though his investigation drew on a variety of sources including trial transcripts, DeMain acknowledges that the allegations about who killed Aquash and why are based on interviews with sources who insist on anonymity.

In subsequent revisions to the timeline, DeMain has included more detailed versions of the alleged events, naming three individuals he believes were involved in Aquash's kidnapping. In DeMain's view the kidnappers (one of whom he claims was also the trigger man in the execution) were acting on orders from above. "These boys wanted to be dog soldiers," he says. "They wanted to be in the gang, they wanted to be important people. They were already doing security and toting around guns. So when someone in the movement ordered Anna Mae's pick-up, they went and did it."

They may have had other motives as well, DeMain says: A relative of one of the three had been present at the Jumping Bull compound, was a suspect in the shooting of the agents, and could have feared being implicated by Aquash.

Last March a Denver Police Department detective named Abe Alonzo pushed the case further yet. Alonzo, who'd been investigating the case since 1994, posted an open letter "to all Native Americans" on the Internet. The document noted that three grand juries had been convened in the case (in 1976, '83, and '94), and that none had returned an indictment. "This may be the last effort to prosecute those responsible for her murder," Alonzo warned. In November a fourth grand jury convened in Sioux Falls to hear testimony about Aquash's death. Citing confidentiality rules, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in South Dakota declines to provide any details on the proceedings.

Alonzo's letter confirmed some of DeMain's suspicions, saying that the investigation had "led to three individuals who are responsible for forcibly taking Anna Mae from Denver" and killing her at Pine Ridge, and that "a number of individuals" had questioned her in South Dakota. News from Indian Country has quoted the detective as saying that "the majority of information" in DeMain's timeline was accurate, though he wouldn't comment on specifics.

In September Alonzo, who works with the Denver PD's intelligence division, was taken off the case; his superiors told DeMain that the investigation was being reassigned to the homicide unit. To some observers anxious for an arrest, it felt like a setback. But DeMain maintains that progress remains likely, in part because of the growing number of people--particularly, he says, women--now volunteering information about the case.

"After Anna Mae was killed," says DeMain, "there were a lot of women inside the movement who heard all sorts of rumors, who knew about the bad-jacketing, and then Anna Mae shows up dead. For years, they wanted to believe something different, but now they're grandmas and, goddammit, they live every day of their lives thinking about it. They knew what happened to Anna Mae, they saw her a few days before she was killed, and they heard these people were involved.

"When this stuff comes out, it comes out with all the putrid fermentation of 20 some years," DeMain concludes, adding that he now considers the murder to be "not an unsolved crime, but an unprosecuted one."

 

Last summer Clyde Bellecourt, Russell Means, and Dennis Banks marched together for the first time since the Seventies. The occasion was a protest in White Clay, Nebraska, a hamlet of 22 just two miles from Pine Ridge. Two Lakota men had been found murdered on the outskirts of town and the protesters claimed that the killings hadn't been properly investigated. The circumstances were eerily similar to those that had drawn AIM to Pine Ridge nearly 30 years ago. But the display of unity was an illusion this time.

"With me and Dennis there was no problem," Bellecourt recalls. "But with Russell, it was really hard. He stopped to shake my hand and I accepted his hand. But I wouldn't have anything to do with him."

Means and the Bellecourts had spent the past two decades locked in a battle for control of the movement, and their divisions had become personal as well as ideological. Cliques had existed in the movement from the beginning: As Means puts it, "Dennis [Banks] had his circle, Clyde had his circle, and I had my circle." But by the early Eighties, the schisms widened. As AIM and its international arm--the International Indian Treaty Council--became increasingly involved in foreign affairs, the two camps picked separate sides in Nicaragua. The Bellecourts were courted by the Sandinistas and Means allied himself with Miskito tribal members who fought alongside the contras.

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