Bury the Truth at Wounded Knee

Dennis Banks’s new memoir—and the murder that won’t go away

At the time, Aquash was like many younger Indians drawn to AIM: inspired by AIM's spirit of defiance and message of pride, and willing to do whatever was necessary for the cause. From the start, Aquash impressed her compatriots and soon she was an AIM insider. She became a best friend to Banks's wife Kamook and a fellow fugitive from the law. According to many accounts she was also Banks's lover.

When he was once asked about his relationship with Aquash by a Canadian television reporter, Banks responded cryptically: "I don't know if I could say that that was a love affair. If I was to marry somebody and if I had a chance to choose who I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, I would have chosen Anna Mae." When the reporter then questioned him directly about rumors of his involvement in Aquash's disappearance, Banks said, "That would be interesting speculation to say that I ordered her death. No, I couldn't do that. I would have died with her."

But in his memoir, Banks chooses to sidestep the nature of his relationship with Aquash entirely. Granted, he dispatches with the subject of his many other wives and lovers with brevity. Here's the sum total of what he has to say about one affair: "[I met] a striking Navajo girl named Angie Begay. Later on, she and I would form a relationship from which would be born a beautiful daughter, Ariel."

University of Oklahoma Press

Maybe Banks just has a hard time mastering the details of his apparently very busy romantic life. But glossing over Aquash is strange. After all, Aquash--who was found murdered three years after Wounded Knee--is a central figure in AIM mythology, one of the movement's central icons and the object of a cry that reverberates today: Justice for Anna Mae.

This past February, about 28 years after Aquash's body was discovered in a remote South Dakota ravine, the federal government successfully prosecuted the first person to be charged with her death, a 50-year-old Denver street drunk and former low-level AIM member named Fritz Arlo Looking Cloud. According to the government's version of events, Aquash was executed because people in AIM believed--wrongly, it turns out--that she was an informant. In particular, they feared she might testify against Leonard Peltier, the celebrated AIM activist who would ultimately be convicted in the fatal shooting of two FBI agents on Pine Ridge.

To date, Arlo Looking Cloud and the accused triggerman, John Graham, are the only people who have been charged in the Aquash killing. But no one expects the case to end there. In the government's view--as well as that of various crusaders who have made the Aquash case their calling--Looking Cloud and Graham were mere foot soldiers. The real killers, they've argued, the ones who ought to be held accountable, are the AIM members who allegedly ordered the hit.

During the Looking Cloud trial, Kamook Nichols--Banks's ex-wife--testified that Aquash told her shortly before her disappearance that she felt scared of Peltier and Banks. Nichols also provided testimony about a long-rumored confrontation between Aquash and Peltier at an AIM convention in Farmington, New Mexico, in which Peltier--concerned that Aquash was informing--was said to have put a gun to Aquash's head. (In a similar incident, according to Nichols, an AIM spiritual leader named Leonard Crow Dog kicked Aquash off his property because he thought she was "a Fed.") Most damning, at least to the orthodox AIM view, was Nichols's testimony that Peltier confessed to both her and Aquash that he was the one who shot the two FBI agents.

In Ojibwa Warrior, Banks doesn't really engage any of these thorny contentions--even to deny them in detail. "Annie Mae's murderers have never been identified," he writes, "but some people, former goons and FBI lovers have tried to re-open the case. They try to put the blame for her death on AIM. They will not succeed." Never mind the fact that Anna Mae's murderers have been publicly identified in newspapers, television documentaries, and books for years now. Never mind that even Looking Cloud, in numerous confessions, has admitted that Aquash's murder was an inside job--and that he was there. (Looking Cloud's defense was not that AIM didn't kill Aquash, but merely that he didn't know what was going to happen).

In his memoir, Banks doesn't address such charges at all. But he still works to give AIM a free pass on her death by, conveniently, putting words in the dead woman's mouth: "'I know that I will be killed,'" he quotes Aquash as telling him. "'The FBI won't let an Indian like me live. But remember, it doesn't matter if the FBI kills me or whether my life is snuffed out by one of our own people who believe the rumors the Feds have spread about me. It will always be the FBI that murders me.'"

That is certainly a tidy quote. Not only does it serve to ennoble Aquash--a figure of iconic stature in native circles--but it absolves AIM of any responsibility in her death, whatever facts ultimately come out. That's not to say that Banks actually acknowledges the notion that AIM even played a role in the tragedy.

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