Who’s to Blame for Anna Mae Aquash’s Death?

3 minute read

The New York Times Magazine published a piece of the death of Anna Mae Aquash, an AIM activist murdered in 1976, last month:

On Feb. 24, 1976, a rancher in South Dakota was installing a fence on land situated along the edge of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation when he spotted a body at the bottom of a 30-foot embankment. The badly decomposed corpse, in jeans and a maroon ski jacket, lay with knees pushed up toward chest. A coroner later determined that the woman had been dead for more than two months. The back of her head was matted with blood, and there was a single bullet wound at the base of her skull. She had been shot at close range.

It would take investigators a week to identify the body as that of 30-year-old Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, a principal in the American Indian Movement. AIM was the country’s most visible, and radical, advocacy group for Native American civil rights. The traveling band of militants had forcibly taken over the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington to demand, among other things, the return of valuable federal land to indigenous tribes. “We’re the landlord of this country,” one slogan went. “And the rent is due.”

The article mentions the FBI’s COINTELPRO program which infiltrated AIM and contributed to hostility within the group:

“For a long time, it was a given among Indians that the F.B.I. engineered Aquash’s murder as a way of scaring and destabilizing AIM,” says Paul DeMain, the editor of News From Indian Country, whose aggressive reporting on the case is often credited with spurring investigators’ interest in it. AIM considered itself at war with the federal government and its proxy, the F.B.I., whose Counterintelligence Program was devised to monitor and take down the radicals of the New Left that the bureau deemed “subversive,” including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Weather Underground. AIM’s concerns weren’t entirely unfounded. A few months before Aquash was killed, one of Banks’s bodyguards, Douglas Durham, appeared on national TV to declare that he was actually a “paid F.B.I. operative” who’d been assigned to infiltrate AIM. Adding to the conspiracy theory was a hasty initial autopsy that somehow missed the bullet in Aquash’s head.

Steve Hendricks, who wrote a book on the FBI and AIM, argues in Counterpunch that the article is correct to go after AIM’s leaders for their role in the murder but not sufficiently critical of the federal government:

The article continues in the same maddening vein: Wicked AIM did this, wicked AIM did that, the poor feds had no leads, finally they got some, AIM veterans were sour about coping with the emerging truth, at last the prosecutors got the bad guys. Case closed. Justice served. Konigsberg barely quoted anyone with a critical view of the government and never quoted anyone calling out the government’s lies about how they handled of the case. Nor did he, if you’ll forgive some immodesty here, quote me or my book, which is the most authoritative book on the Aquash case. I am by no means the only source worth consulting. For example, the work of the anti-AIM, pro-government publisher of News From Indian Country, Paul Demain, whom Konigsberg quoted (and should have), is a trove of worthy information. But I am nearly the only authoritative source who is critical of both AIM and the government. Would I be amiss in guessing that mine was not a viewpoint that Konigsberg found convenient to his story? Certainly his editors thought as much, since they did not even reply to my letter attempting to correct a few of his biases.

Aquash’s death, like Leonard Peltier’s involvement in the Pine Ridge shootout, is one of the many events in AIM’s history that has too many unanswered questions, many of which will have their answers taken to the grave.