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by David Seals
Wednesday, Dec. 06, 2000 at 3:35 PM
Interesting peice by David Seals (long time AIM member and writer of Pow-Wow highway about the death of Anna MAe Aquash and Russ MEans and Ward Churchills part in the cover up.
errorDavid Seals explores the issue of Russ Means involvement in the murder of Anna Mae Aquash
David Seals reviews the book ...
She was just another dead Indian in the ditch. That gray and freezing winter of 1975-76 in the Black Hills was full of terrible fear and death everywhere, and I had to go up on Bear Butte to see how beautiful and clear the world could also be. From the top of the Sacred Mountain the air at the end of February, when her body was found, was as cold as crystal, and the sky was bluer than the turquoise in her New Mexico bracelets and rings.
The rings that had been on her fingers, on her hands, and that were chopped off by the FBI and sent to Washington for fingerprinting or something else.
I didn't know that her name was Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash until years later when Johanna Brand pioneered the quest in 'The Life and Death of Anna Mae Aquash', and then a video came out later, 'Brave Hearted Woman'. At the time I didn't even see a notice about it in the newspapers, and only the warriors who dared to confront the Beast in its Belly on Pine Ridge Reservation knew who she was.
Slowly it came out that she was a cut above the other Jane Does South Dakotans sneer about, winos often found in the creeks and alleys and trash cans of the land where Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse also fought and died for Honor.
I began to hear women speaking of her with special reverence, women who had worked with her to help the elders and children who were starving and alcohol-sick and mistreated worse than dogs in America, on the hidden gulag of concentration camps of the Indian Reservations deep in the intestines of the Dakotas, and Minnesota, Colorado, Boston, California, and her home territory of the MicMac Nation in Nova Scotia.
She was everywhere, they said, from rallies at Plymouth Rock demanding Native Justice to the Trail of Broken Treaties leading into Washington DC, and Wounded Knee. And everywhere the whispers persisted that her death at the age of 30 in that bad winter had about it an air of mystery, of a legend of elemental War between good and evil, of honor and dishonor among thieves in both the Indian camps and the American.
Antoinette Nora Claypoole captures some of the stark mythic tragedy of this story in her book 'Who Would Unbraid her Hair: the legend of annie mae'.
Its modern poetic style and loose structure make me feel our bleak and beautiful South Dakota winters as Indians feel them. It is a continuation of the heroic quest to solve not only the terrible murder mystery of one woman, but also, in a way, to solve and help heal the whole continuing terrible Indian Wars that are resulting in many other murders every day.
It is heroic not in the romantic hollywood corruption in which heroes are defined by millionaires like Jane Fonda and Madonna, but rather in the classical sense in which a Tragic Hero failed because of her greatness.
It was not enough for a person to die to be called 'tragic' as it is routinely used today; and it was not enough alone to save somebody else's life to be called a 'hero'. Great tragic heroes like Antigone or Queen Dido of Carthage or Joan of Arc failed because of their greatness, their great love for mankind or God, their uncompromising courage in the face of certain death that leaves us all trembling with terrible pity and awe and shame.
It looks to me and many others now that Annie Mae was murdered brutally because she would not dishonor herself, that she would not betray her own immortal spirit, regardless of the evil consequences.
By all accounts Annie's last days and hours were full of the most terrifying cruelty and violence imaginable.
Claypoole quotes a Rolling Stone story from 1977, "On February 24th, 1976, the temperature climbed from freezing to above, bringing an early thaw to the bleak northeastern corner of Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
"Cattle rancher Roger Amiott went to work lining up a new fence, moving slowly, wary of the mud left by the receding snow. He was working his way along a dry creek bed about midafternoon when he saw the body.
"She was still dressed in a wine colored ski jacket, jeans and blue clothe shoes, but she had been there at least several days and had begun to rot. Her face was blackened and some features had been nibbled away by prairie animals ... the dead woman was 30 year old Anna Mae [Pictou] Aquash, an important organizer in the American Indian Movement ..."
Apparently dozens of cops and FBI agents converged on the remote scene when Amiott called it in, and one of the Agents wrote later than he thought her body had been burned first and then dressed again. [A lot of supplemental information like that is on the publisher's websites on the Internet, by Jordan S. Dill, who has done an incredible job of helping to reopen this case]
After a hasty and later very controversial autopsy at Pine Ridge hospital, about a 100 miles away, it was determined she had died of exposure and she was to be buried as a Jane Doe. There was some evidence of rape as well, and some blood was oozing out of the back of her head, according to a nurse and doctor. And her hands were chopped off and sent to Washington ostensibly for fingerprinting to determine her identity. She was then hastily buried in an unmarked pauper's grave, in the old Red Cloud cemetary of a Catholic School, not far from the famous chief himself.
These details and a great deal more have been researched by Brand and the Internet websites of AIM and others, as well as by Peter Matthiessen in his 1983 bestseller 'In The Spirit of Crazy Horse'. Wild charges and countercharges of racism and terrorism and conspiracy of a coverup have flown back and forth between AIM and the FBI ever since then, all of which looks more and more to observers like me to be the work of some very skillful misinformation specialists turning everybody away from the scent.
Family members of Annie's asked for an exhumation of the body and a second autopsy when the FBI notifed them in Canada, from Washington, of her identity. When it became known the Jane Doe was really a respected leader in the hierarchy of AIM, a Native Rights organization famous for flamboyant confrontations with the US government, like the Wounded Knee Occupation of 1973, several of AIM's eastern lawyers quickly moved for the exhumation and autopsy.
The government complied and, at least according to 2 FBI Agents at the second autopsy, they were shocked to discover that a bullet hole was found in the back of the dead woman's head, and a .32 calibre slug was lodged in her left temple. The bullet wound had been completely overlooked by the government's doctor in the first autopsy. The second examination also indicated that the woman had had sex before she died, but it remains unclear whether the reports indicate rape or not.
Annie was buried again on March 12 with honors this time, attended by dozens of friends and admirers and prayers from medicine men. The February thaw had broken and howling blizzard winds had returned with the end of winter. No AIM leaders attended the wake and funeral, and none of her family could make it in time all the way from the Atlantic Coast of Canada.
" . . . but the Sun is up and you're going my heart is filled with tears please don't go, i need you walking by my side ... the road is long and weary and i get so tired . . . "
Anna Mae Pictou Aquash
There she lies to this day, among the tall weeds not far off the road on a hillside between the villages of Oglala and Pine Ridge, overlooking a pretty valley and rocky hillsides to the east. When I first visited her gravesite in 1983 there was no marker at all, nor was there one for the grave beside, but friends told me it was hers. The other one was for Joe killsright Stuntz, a young Indian killed by the FBI in a famous and terrible firefight just up the road on June 26, 1975, a few months before Annie disappeared into mystery.
I wish somebody had known to include one of Annie's poems there, or something, as Claypoole thoughtfully has in her book:
"I am a part of this creation ....
I am the generation ....
I am not a citizen of the United States....
I have a right to continue my cycle in this Universe undisturbed
The legend of annie mae as antoinette claypoole perceives it is that of a strong woman caught in the forces of history. "She is fossilized into the psyche . . . this is a book about silence and how it murders people. this is a book about breaking ancient rituals. of human sacrifice and tragedy."
open sores oozing premonition
" ... and i tell him 'look, see. it's not who fuckin' pulled the trigger, we both know dominant white culture killed her. with their scare tactics and snitch jacket terrorism. okay?' ... the martyr snitch ridiculousness ...
the pontiac just turned over, they take indians and turn them into cars. and nickels and beer. souvenirs of war.
this ain't that. anna mae is no collectors item. ...mix-representing eros and psyche.
The physical presence of the book is stunning as soon as you see the magnificent Frank Howell black and brown painting on the cover; SHE is the ghost warrior in terrible otherworldly ruthlessness, a Warrior with a faint white mask over her eyes and grim-lovely maroon and gray feathers tied to her eternal hair. It is a chilling evocation of the land and the night. The book is nowhere as elaborate with color paintings like Chuck Storm's incoherent New Age bestseller 'Seven Arrows', but it has that same open feeling of the prairie that only a few masters like Mari Sandoz can summon with mere words.
Perusing any Indian bookstore these days will reveal a flood of gorgeous new multi-colored Indianesque book covers, with cosmic eagles and grandmother-thunderbirds, etc., but inside the expensive artwork there are few stories as universal or as dignified as this one of Annie Mae.
It's a true story. She was very real. The search for her killers is still ongoing, pointing painfully from the Badlands to traitors like AIM leader Russell Means in our midst, a swaggering Sioux on the Hollywood circuit like a caricature out of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Indians who worked for the FBI and the US back in the 70s were called Goons, and Means is the New Age Goon whom Annie discovered in the belly of deceit and greed, and she was about to expose him as a provocateur for hire by the FBI, but he shot her in the back of the head first.
How do we know that? Annie's cousin Robert Branscombe-Pictou has re-opened the case over the last few years, with the blessings of Annie's 2 grown daughters and the leaders of the MicMac Nation, as well as support from the Canada-wide Assembly of First Nations, along with help from some other Native print organizations like Notes From Indian Country in Wisconsin, and they have gone public with names of the killers. A Denver Police detective has also helped them; and there was a BIA policeman investigating it earlier in the 90s on Pine Ridge. (Unlike some ideologically-minded AIM people I don't automatically discredit the sincerity of all cops or whitemen, some of whom certainly must be as horrified by this case as anyone)
When they named 2 young Native guys, Arlo Looking Cloud and John Boy Patton as the shooters, and an older Native woman Theda Nelson-Clark, it was like a bombshell on the Internet in Indian Country. Finally, a breakthrough in the case after 20 long years! Branscombe and the family went even more public in September 16, 1999 at a big press conference in Ottawa, naming the killers and demanding the FBI re-open its botched investigation, calling for more Grand Jury investigations (there have been 3 over the years, with no public disclosure of any results), and indictments.
Then the coup-de-grace - Branscombe smoked out Russell Means in Denver at a subsequent press conference on November 3, along with his lieutenant Ward Churchill, a former Rapid City policeman and 'Disinformation Specialist' with Army Intelligence, fronting as a professor at the University of Colorado in 'Indian Studies'. Means came forward ostensibly to name other AIM leaders as the undercover FBI provocateurs who ordered Annie's death, notably AIM founder Vernon Bellecourt, an Ojibwa from Minneapolis.
Means and Churchill were smoked out in a classic Crazy Horse ambush - they smelled AIM blood and moved in for the kill, to discredit the Movement by turning all the famous leaders, including Dennis Banks and Leonard Peltier, against each other. An ugly public spectacle resulted, predictably, as the media gleefully covered the feuding with much more attention than they ever gave Annie's original murder.
Means is famous in Indian Country for being famous to the American media on the 'radical chic' circuit, speaking out for everything from Sovereignty to Treaties while not denying he took bribes from the Cleveland Indians to stop protesting their repulsive Chief Wahoo logo, and making a fortune in hollywood and publishing a self-serving autobiography.
Why did he do it? Money. Ego. I remember one time in 1982 when Daniel Ortega was elected president of Nicaragua, Means snarled, "He's younger than me and already the president of his country." It's well known here among his Oglala relatives that he had no admiration for the Sandanistas or any other revolutionary indigenous struggles, but he went down there and disrupted them, acknowledging he was working for the vicious attack dog Eliot Abrams of the US State Department. The story of Russell Means and Ward Churchill is the story behind why Leonard Peltier has been in prison for 24 years (Peltier was not even mentioned once in Means' book 'Where Whitemen Fear To Tread'), why Pine Ridge is on the poorest county in the richest country in the world, why the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty, with legal native claim to most of the upper plains of the West, is ignored by environmentalists and everybody else. Conspiracy? Of course. Ask Sitting Bull.
Back in South Dakota on the battlefields, the elders and grassroots people who witnessed the events and actions of those crucial days and nights of the 1970s on Pine Ridge have come forward naming Russell Means as the killer. The spirit of Annie Mae herself has named him in Ceremonies. They are preparing their own depositions and indictments for his Trial at a traditional Council on the sacred mountain, Bear Butte, and have asked all the old AIM leaders and central players and friends of Annie to come forward and give testimony. It might be a continuation of the ongoing War Crimes Tribunals that have been conducted through the American Hemisphere for years, purging the whole 507 years of the American Holocaust and 100 million uninvestigated Indian Murders.
These are not the ordinary factual rational procedures in a criminal case, but they are what Annie herself believed in, and I have come to feel the same way as the descendents of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. No one around here expects justice from the United States jurisprudential system. We are not going to be ambushed by them again, waiting for Grand Juries or Congress or the University System to do the right thing. Antoinette Claypoole, to her credit, also sees this as an extra-rational process, and, I hope, would support the ancient spiritual councils.
She contributed to Branscombe's early investigations, along with Dill and the others of the underground Native media and internet sites, and she goes into a lot of detail of the dangerous and difficult dynamics of it. A lot of Natives didn't trust her.
"you can't talk about life on the rez oppression and extermination of indian people you are not indian another smoke. KK girl. i want to hold her by the throat. she pulls out the gideon and starts again. says, why all this about annie mae anyway. a woman who slept around and drank. what's the big deal about this chick."
She writes in a more normal prose preface, "The continual intention of my work is to encourage a healing of the fear and sorrow, anger and injustice which surround the memory of Annie Mae, and to help her wandering spirit settle into her journey home."
with this book i toss the key to lies and secrecy. i challenge those still living who knew annie mae and loved her, to open their hearts and speak her honor. who would unbraid her hair, stare into a winterwind walk into her grave?
David Seals, 11.29.99
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