Anna Mae Aquash ~ Wounded Knee

Published on January 20, 2012 by Carol

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Anna Mae Pictou Aquash
Anna Mae Pictou Aquash


Three years after the Wounded Knee occupation, and less than a year after the shootout at Jumping Bull Ranch on the Pine Ridge Reservation, on February 24, 1976, Aquash’s body was found by the side of State Road 73 in the northeast corner of the reservation, about 10 miles from Wanblee, South Dakota. Her body was discovered by Roger Amiotte, a rancher, during an unusual thaw. An autopsy was conducted by medical practitioner, W. O. Brown, who wrote: “it appears she had been dead for about 10 days.” Failing to notice a bullet wound in her skull, Brown concluded that “she had died of exposure.” She was not then identified. Her hands were cut off and sent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation headquarters in Washington, D.C. for fingerprinting. Her body was soon buried as a Jane Doe.

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On March 10, 1976, eight days after the burial, Aquash’s remains were exhumed due to requests made separately by her family and AIM supporters, and by the FBI. AIM arranged for a second autopsy to be conducted by Dr. Garry Peterson, an independent pathologist from Minneapolis. He found that she had been shot by a .32 caliber bullet in the back of the head, execution style. She was reinterred in Oglala Lakota land. Rumors persisted that she had been killed as an informant related to the Leonard Peltier case. Aquash had not been at the Pine Ridge Reservation at the time of the murders of the two FBI agents in June 1975, for which Peltier was convicted in 1976.

Her murder was investigated both by the Denver police – as it was found that she had been kidnapped from there in December 1975 – and by the FBI, since she was transported across state lines and killed on an American Indian reservation. Federal grand juries were called to hear testimony on her case in 1976, 1982 and 1994, but no indictments were made. In 1997 Paul DeMain, editor of the independent newspaper News From Indian Country, started regularly publishing articles about the investigation of the murder of Aquash.

People come forward

On 3 November 1999, Robert Pictou-Branscombe, a maternal cousin of Aquash from Canada, and Russell Means, associated with the Denver-based AIM movement, held a press conference in Denver at the Federal Building to discuss the slow progress of the investigation into Aquash’s murder. It had been under investigation both by the Denver police, as Aquash had been kidnapped from there, and by the FBI, as she had been taken across state lines and killed on an Indian reservation. Both Branscombe and Means accused Vernon Bellecourt, a high-ranking leader of AIM, of having ordered the execution of Aquash. Means said that Clyde Bellecourt, a founder of AIM, had ensured that it was carried out at the Pine Ridge Reservation. Means said that an AIM tribunal had banned the Bellecourt brothers but tried to keep the reason for the dissension internal to protect AIM.

The Associated Press (AP) reporter Robert Weller noted that this was the first time that an AIM leader active at the time of Aquash’s death had publicly implicated AIM in the murder. [Note: The AIM organization split in 1993: the American Indian Movement Grand Governing Council is based in Minneapolis; and the AIM-International Confederation of Autonomous Chapters is based in Denver.] Means and Branscombe accused three indigenous people: Arlo Looking Cloud, Theda Nelson Clark and John Graham, of having been directly involved in the kidnapping and murder of Aquash.

Earlier that day in a telephone interview with the journalists Paul DeMain and Harlan McKosato prior to the press conference, the journalist Minnie Two Shoes had said, speaking of the importance of Aquash,

    “Part of why she was so important is because she was very symbolic, she was a hard working woman, she dedicated her life to the movement, to righting all the injustices that she could, and to pick somebody out and launch their little cointelpro program on her to bad jacket her to the point where she ends up dead, whoever did it, let’s look at what the reasons are, you know, she was killed and lets look at the real reasons why it could have been any of us, it could have been me, it could have been, ya gotta look at the basically thousands of women, you gotta remember that it was mostly women in AIM, it could have been any one of us and I think that’s why it’s been so important and she was just such a good person.”

McKosato said, “…her [Aquash's] death has divided the American Indian Movement…”
On 4 November 1999, in a followup show on Native American Calling the next day, Vernon Bellecourt denied any involvement by him and his brother in the death of Aquash. Their office released a statement that Means was no longer part of the national AIM, and may have been trying to deflect attention from his own involvement. The AP noted the longstanding dissension within AIM between Means and the Bellecourt brothers.

In an editorial written in January 2002 in the News from Indian Country, the publisher Paul DeMain said that he had met with several people who said they had heard Leonard Peltier in 1975 confess to the shootings of the two FBI agents on 26 June 1975 at the Pine Ridge Reservation. They further said that they believed the motive for the execution-style murder of Aquash “allegedly was her knowledge that Leonard Peltier had shot the two [FBI] agents, as he was convicted.” DeMain did not reveal his sources because of their personal danger in having spoken to him. In an editorial of March 2003, DeMain withdrew his support for clemency for Peltier. In response, Peltier sued DeMain for libel on May 1, 2003. On May 25, 2004, after the Arlo Looking Cloud trial ended with his conviction, Peltier withdrew the suit; he and DeMain reached a settlement.

DeMain issued a statement that included the following:

    “…I do not believe that Leonard Peltier received a fair trial in connection with the murders of which he was convicted. Certainly he is entitled to one. Nor do I believe, according to the evidence and testimony I now have, that Mr. Peltier had any involvement in the death of Anna Mae Aquash.”

DeMain did not retract his allegations that Peltier was guilty of the murders of the FBI agents, and that the motive for Aquash’s murder was the fear that she might inform on the activist.

Indictments and a co-conspirator

In January 2003, a fourth federal grand jury was called in Rapid City to hear testimony about the murder of Aquash. She was known to have been taken from the home of Troy Lynn Yellow Wood of Denver, Colorado on December 10, 1975, and transported to Rapid City, where she was interrogated and held at Thelma Rios’ house. Aquash was next taken to the Pine Ridge Reservation, where she was killed in mid-December. On March 20, 2003, a federal grand jury indicted two men for her murder: Fritz Arlo Looking Cloud (an Oglala Lakota) and John Graham (aka John Boy Patton) (a Southern Tutchone Athabascan), from Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada. Although Theda Nelson Clark, Graham’s adopted aunt, was also alleged to have been involved, she was not indicted; by then she was being cared for in a nursing home.

Bruce Ellison, who has been Leonard Peltier’s lawyer since the 1970s, invoked his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination and refused to testify at the grand jury hearings on charges against Looking Cloud or at his trial in 2004. During the trial, the federal prosecutor referred to Ellison as a co-conspirator in the Aquash case. Witnesses say that Ellison participated in interrogating Anna Mae Aquash on December 11, 1975, shortly before her murder

Looking Cloud convicted
On February 8, 2004 the trial of Arlo Looking Cloud began before a U.S. federal jury; five days later he was found guilty. On April 23, 2004 he was given a mandatory sentence of life in prison. Although no physical evidence linking Looking Cloud to the crime was presented, a videotape was shown in which he admitted to having been at the scene of the murder, but said he was not aware that Aquash was going to be killed. In that video, Looking Cloud was interviewed by Detective Abe Alonzo of the Denver Police Department and Robert Ecoffey, the Director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Law Enforcement Services. On March 27, 2003, Looking Cloud said that John Graham was the gunman.

Looking Cloud testified on videotape that he was present at the murder and that John Graham pulled the trigger; he said that he was making his statement while under the influence of “a little bit of alcohol.” Trial testimony showed that Looking Cloud told a number of other individuals in various times and places about having been at the murder.

Looking Cloud appealed his conviction. In the appeal, filed by attorney Terry Gilbert, who replaced his trial attorney Tim Rensch, Looking Cloud retracted his videotaped confession, saying that it was false. He appealed based on the grounds that his trial counsel Rensch was ineffective in failing to object to the introduction of Looking Cloud’s videotaped statement, that he failed to object to hearsay statements of Anna Mae Aquash, failed to object to hearsay instruction for the jury, and failed to object to leading questions by the prosecution to Robert Ecoffey. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit denied Looking Cloud’s appeal. On August 19, 2005, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed the judgment of conviction.Richard Two Elk, adopted brother of Looking Cloud; Troy Lynn Yellow Wood, former AIM chairman John Trudell, and Aquash’s daughters Denise and Debbie Maloney were other witnesses who testified at the trial that Looking Cloud had separately confessed his involvement to them.

Extradition of Graham
On June 22, 2006 Canada’s Minister of Justice, Vic Toews, ordered the extradition of John Graham to the United States to face charges on his alleged involvement in the murder of Aquash. Graham appealed the order and was held under house arrest, with conditions. In July 2007, a Canadian court denied his appeal, and upheld the extradition order. On December 6, 2007 the Supreme Court of Canada denied Graham’s second appeal of his extradition.

In a 2004 interview recorded at Pacifica Radio, Graham denied any involvement in the death of Anna Mae Aquash. He claims that the U.S. government threatened to name him as the murderer if he “didn’t co-operate”. He said that he last saw Aquash on a drive that took them from Denver to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where he left her at a “safe house.” (Graham said the FBI questioned him about the death and offered him the witness protection program if he implicated the AIM leadership.)

Richard Marshall
In August 2008, a federal grand jury indicted a third man, Vine Richard “Dick” Marshall, with aiding and abetting the murder. Marshall was a bodyguard for Russell Means at the time of Aquash’s murder. It was alleged that Graham, Looking Cloud and Theda Nalson Clark had taken Aquash to Marshall’s house, where they held her prior to taking her to her execution. Marshall’s wife, Cleo Gates, testified to this at Looking Cloud’s trial. Marshall is alleged to have provided the murder weapon to Graham and Looking Cloud. Marshall was imprisoned in 1976 after being convicted in the 1975 shooting death of a man. He was paroled from prison in 2000. He was acquitted in the Aquash case.

State trial for Graham and Rios

In September 2009, Graham and Thelma Rios, a Lakota advocate in Rapid City, were charged by the State Court of South Dakota with the kidnapping, rape and murder of Anna Mae. The case against the defendants continued through much of 2010.

Thelma Rios
Thelma Rios, a longtime Lakota advocate in Rapid City, was charged by the state of South Dakota in September 2009, along with John Graham, for the kidnapping, rape and murder of Aquash.[28] Already in poor health, she avoided a trial on murder charges by agreeing to a plea bargain “that acknowledged her role in the events leading up to Aquash’s death.” In November 2010, she pled guilty to the charge of being an accessory to kidnapping and received a 5-year sentence, most of which was suspended.

Rios admitted in court that she “relayed a message to other AIM members to bring Aquash from Denver to Rapid City in December 1975, because they thought she was a government informant.” Rios died of lung cancer 9 February 2011. Although names were redacted in her plea agreement at court, she had said she heard two people ordering Aquash to be brought from Denver to Rapid City and that she should be killed.

Graham convicted of felony murder
On December 10, 2010 after two days of deliberation in the state court, jurors found Graham guilty of felony murder, but acquitted him of the premeditated murder charge. The felony murder conviction carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison.


Observers and historians speculate about who ordered the murder of Anna Mae Aquash. John Trudell testified in both the 1976 Butler and Robideau trial and the 2004 Looking Cloud trial that Dennis Banks had told him that the body of Anna Mae Aquash had been found before it was officially identified. Banks wrote in his autobiography, Ojibwa Warrior, that Trudell told him that the body found was that of Aquash. Banks wrote that he did not know until then that Aquash had been killed, although she had been missing.

In Looking Cloud’s trial, the prosecution argued that AIM’s suspicion of Aquash stemmed from her having heard Peltier admit to the murders. Darlene “Kamook” Nichols, former wife of the AIM leader Dennis Banks, testified that in late 1975, Peltier confessed to shooting the FBI agents. He was talking to a small group of fugitive AIM activists then on the run from law enforcement. They included Nichols, her sister Bernie Nichols (later Lafferty), Nichols’ husband Dennis Banks, and Aquash, among several others. Nichols testified that Peltier said, “The mother fucker was begging for his life, but I shot him anyway.” Bernie Nichols-Lafferty gave the same account of Peltier’s statement.

Other witnesses have testified that once Aquash came under suspicion as an informant, Peltier interrogated her while holding a gun to her head. Peltier and David Hill later had Aquash participate in bomb-making so that her fingerprints would be on the bombs. The trio planted the bombs at two power plants on the Pine Ridge reservation. Extensive testimony suggests that AIM leaders ordered the murder of Aquash; because of her position, lower-ranking members would not have moved against her without permission from above.

Reinterment at Indian Brook Reservation

After the conviction of Looking Cloud in 2004, Aquash’s family had her remains exhumed and transported to Nova Scotia for reinterment on June 21 at Indian Brook Reservation in Shubenacadie. They held appropriate Mi’kmaq ceremonies and celebrated the work and life of the activist. Family and supporters have held annual anniversary ceremonies in her honor since then.

Representation in media

  • Yvette Nolan’s play, Annie Mae’s Movement (1999), is about Aquash and her participation in AIM. It was originally published in Toronto and reprinted in 2006 by Playwrights Canada Press.
  • The Spirit of Anna Mae (2002) is a 72-minute film directed by Catherine Anne Martin, a tribute by women who knew Aquash. It was produced by the National Film Board of Canada (NFB).
  • Steve Hendricks, The Unquiet Grave: The FBI and the Struggle for the Soul of Indian Country (2006), non-fiction study of events at Pine Ridge Reservation and the murders of Ray Robinson and Anna Mae Aquash
  • Joseph H. Trimbach and John H. Trimbach, American Indian Mafia: An FBI Agent’s True Story about Wounded Knee, Leonard Peltier, and the American Indian Movement (AIM) (2007), book by the FBI Special Agent in Charge (SAC), Minneapolis region, at the time of the Wounded Knee Incident and later murders at Pine Ridge.

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