US Renews War on the American Indian Movement:
The Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash Story
by Billie Pierre, Nlaka’pamux/Saulteaux Nation
Earth First! Journal January/February 2006
In the past few years, the memory of Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash—an American Indian Movement (AIM) leader from the Mi’kmaq Nation in Nova Scotia, Canada—has been reduced to that of a helpless woman who was murdered by her own allies. In reality, her murder is part of a ruthless campaign waged by the US government—a campaign that, far from being ancient history, is still unfolding today.
Thirty years after the death of Pictou-Aquash, the US government has renewed its war against the last remnants of AIM. As in the 1970s, this attack is only part of a larger war to gain control over Native lands and resources.
The US made its first violent attack against AIM in , in what became known as the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Takeover. Natives had been conducting a peaceful protest outside the BIA headquarters in Washington, DC, when they were attacked by riot police. In response, the Natives barricaded themselves inside the building, smashed up offices and took top-secret documents. These documents proved that the government was illegally handing out reservation land, water and mineral rights to corporations.
That same year, AIM launched a campaign on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Dick Wilson, the corrupt tribal president, had created a paramilitary force with stolen federal program funding. With his control of the reservation secured by force, Wilson set about ceding uranium-rich areas of the sacred Black Hills to the federal government. AIM assisted in protecting Pine Ridge’s traditional families from the constant onslaught of violence, which culminated in the AIM occupation and government siege of Wounded Knee in the Spring of 1973. From 1973 to 1976, the people of Pine Ridge lived under the “Reign of Terror”—more than  Natives, mainly traditional Lakota and AIM members, were murdered, primarily by Wilson’s Guardians of the Oglala Nation (GOONs).
On June 26, 1975—while Wilson was in Washington, DC, signing away an eighth of the reservation—the FBI launched an attack on an AIM camp at Pine Ridge. The US was dealt a humiliating blow—two FBI agents lost their lives. Although Joe Stuntz Killsright, a Native warrior, was killed in the shoot-out, an estimated 40 Native men, women and children escaped.
In extreme rage, the FBI violently harassed Lakota families. They drafted a list of people that they suspected were present at the shoot-out, and they blamed Leonard Peltier, Bob Robideau, Dino Butler and Jimmy Eagle for killing the agents. The four young men went on the run. Butler and Robideau were eventually arrested, tried and acquitted by an all-white jury, so the FBI targeted Peltier for the “murder” of the agents. Of course, there has never been an investigation into Stuntz Killsright’s death.
At this time, Pictou-Aquash was “snitch-jacketed” by the FBI. This tactic of the FBI’s Counter-intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) undermined valuable members of a group by casting them in suspicious situations. Wherever Pictou-Aquash went, arrests would follow. She’d be released, while other AIM members were slapped with charges and high bail. In September 1975, FBI Agent David Price attempted to force her to sign an affidavit implicating Peltier for the murder of the two FBI agents. She refused to cooperate, and Price promised her that she wouldn’t live to see the year’s end.
Pictou-Aquash went underground, turning to AIM for protection and putting her fears of the FBI in writing. In late February, her body was found outside of [Wanblee], on Pine Ridge. Four FBI agents joined the “investigation,” including Price. They cut off her hands for “fingerprint analysis,” and despite the visible bullet hole in the back of her head, they determined that the cause of her death was exposure. They quickly arranged for her to be buried as a Jane Doe. After this cover-up came to light, the FBI released a statement announcing that Pictou-Aquash was not a government informant. As intended, this statement insinuated that AIM might have believed Pictou-Aquash to be an informant and murdered her.
After nearly three decades of dormancy, law enforcement attempts to “solve” the murder of Pictou-Aquash recently resumed, with a surprising number of former AIM members accepting and promoting the FBI’s version of events. On March 30, 2003, two Native men were accused of her murder—John Graham and Arlo Looking Cloud. There is no credible evidence linking either man to the crime, and their prosecution seems like nothing more than an effort to destroy what little remains of AIM.
US Marshal Robert Ecoffey has played a prominent role in resurrecting the investigation. Ecoffey got his start in law enforcement as a GOON in the 1970s, and he participated in the Oglala shoot-out. In the 1990s, after becoming the first Native US Marshal in history, Ecoffey resurrected the Pictou-Aquash murder investigation and followed FBI claims that AIM was responsible. Ecoffey and Denver, Colorado, Detective Abe Alonzo spent years visiting and questioning Looking Cloud about the murder.
Looking Cloud is an Oglala Lakota and a father of two. He also has serious substance abuse problems that were exploited by Ecoffey and Alonzo during their investigation. In March 2003, in an alleged confession video-taped by Ecoffey, Looking Cloud admitted to being under the influence of alcohol. Alonzo then fed him leading questions, and Looking Cloud slurred contradictory answers. He allegedly confessed that he had been the unwitting accomplice in Pictou-Aquash’s execution by AIM. He stated that he witnessed Graham take her to the edge of a ravine and shoot her in the back of the head.
Looking Cloud was denied the right to choose his own lawyer. During his trial, every witness for the prosecution presented AIM in the most negative light possible, and they contradicted each other in their testimonies. Many people could have been called as defense witnesses, to testify that Pictou-Aquash had been afraid of the FBI, not AIM. But the defense called only one witness—FBI Agent Price! He was questioned for 10 minutes on Pictou-Aquash and whether she was an FBI informant. Looking Cloud’s lawyer made few motions and did not challenge Ecoffey and Alonzo’s manipulation of his client. Looking Cloud was not allowed to take the stand to defend himself; all that was shown was the videotaped interview that he had given. In February 2004, after a four-day trial, Looking Cloud was convicted of aiding and abetting in the murder of Pictou-Aquash, and he was sentenced to life in prison. Looking Cloud’s subsequent appeal was denied. In October, Looking Cloud fired his most recent lawyer. Unfortunately, without much more widespread support in the US and Canada, he is unlikely to challenge the dirty tactics used to convict him.
Sadly, many former members of AIM are now cooperating with the FBI’s renewed war on the movement.
Robideau now lives in Spain, where he operates a “Native museum” and does workshops on “Native art” for Europeans. Robideau has also profited from Robert Redford’s Incident at Oglala, a documentary about the 1975 shoot-out. In this movie, Robideau perpetuates rumors of a “Mr. X”—the man who really murdered the FBI agents. Rather than exonerating Peltier, this creates an opportunity for the FBI to possibly prosecute more AIM members for the shootings. Robideau also perpetuates the rumor that Peltier once interrogated Pictou-Aquash with a gun, suspecting that she was working for the FBI.
In the wake of Pictou-Aquash’s death, Robideau stated that the FBI killed her “because they knew she was one of us and wouldn’t talk.” But in February 2004, he claimed: “I for one applaud the verdict of guilty in the Arlo Looking Cloud case.” A month later, Robideau resigned from the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee (LPDC) “after several discussions with this group regarding the ongoing support and comfort that the LPDC… continues to give to John Graham and the John Graham Defense Committee…. I personally will be overjoyed when the Canadian courts rule to return John Graham… to the US to answer for this brutal murder. I will pray that his extradition contributes to an escalation of this case.”
Another turncoat is Russell Means, the charismatic national director of AIM during the 1970s. Since then, he has moved on to Hollywood, starring in The Last of the Mohicans and Disney’s Pocahontas. Means also has assisted the Republican Party in campaigning on Pine Ridge.
In 1998, Means publicly accused Graham and Looking Cloud of murdering Pictou-Aquash and demanded that the courts hand down indictments. Following Looking Cloud’s conviction, however, Means called it a travesty of justice. Obviously, he is on whatever side brings him the most attention.
Kelly White, a former AIM member, runs a Native issues radio show in Vancouver. A few years before Graham was arrested, she began to target him for defamation. At a Peltier support event in Vancouver, she got up on stage and accused Graham of murdering Pictou-Aquash, although she didn’t have any evidence to back this up. Her personality is vindictive, and over the years she’s targeted various people in the community, including those who have supported Graham’s struggle against extradition.
This behavior is unacceptable; a basic principle of any resistance movement is non-collaboration with the enemy. As Peltier has written regarding the arrest of Graham: “When we talk of sovereignty, we must be willing to solve our own problems and not go running to the oppressor for relief…. We have been and still are at odds with the most dangerous, well-funded, strongest military and political organization in the history of the world.”
John Trudell, a onetime AIM spokesperson turned actor and musician, is also helping the FBI pin Pictou-Aquash’s murder on former AIM members. Trudell’s testimony at Looking Cloud’s trial can be summed up as: “Though I have no recollection of ever meeting Looking Cloud, he tracked me down and confessed his role in Anna Mac’s murder—but until this time, I chose to stay silent.” Graham’s extradition was made possible by Trudell’s positive identification of him to the FBI.
Former AIM member Kamook Nichols also gave testimony at Looking Cloud’s trial. She stated that Dennis Banks, her former husband and cofounder of AIM, and Peltier believed that Pictou-Aquash was working for the FBI. Nichols stated that they had planned to bomb strategic locations on Pine Ridge and wanted Pictou-Aquash’s fingerprints on the explosives.
Not only did the FBI give Nichols immunity, it also gave her $42,000 for her cooperation. She also admitted to wearing a wire for the FBI over the. years. It is suspected that Nichols may have implicated her exhusband for personal reasons; it has been documented that Pictou-Aquash and Banks were having an affair—something Nichols has known of since August 1975. Nichols’ testimony is suspect for another reason: In September 2004, she married Robert Ecoffey, following a five-year-long relationship.
On December 1, 2003, John Graham, a Southern Tuchone from the Yukon and a father of eight, was arrested in Vancouver, Canada, for the murder of Pictou-Aquash. To raise his $50,000 bail, his family had to sell their trapline, their traditional way of living off the land. In early 2005, the government of British Columbia approved his extradition to the US. His appeal is scheduled for June.
Graham is a warrior. As a young man, he went to South Dakota to join the AIM campaign on Pine Ridge. Over the years, he has continued to make great contributions to indigenous resistance to uranium mining. I’ve met many people who’ve worked with him and have heard only good things about him. Unlike many former AIM members, he refuses to cooperate with the FBI and refuses to implicate anyone for any reason.
Graham has stated that Pictou-Aquash was his sister and that they stuck together because Natives from Canada tended to be given a hard time by their US brothers and sisters. His job was to transport Pictou-Aquash, who was hiding from Agent Price and a violent infiltrator named Douglas Durham. Graham has stated that he drove her from Denver to a safe house on Pine Ridge.
Graham says that the FBI started to visit him in the Yukon during the mid-1990s. On four separate visits, they offered him immunity and a new identity if he testified that any of the former AIM leaders had ordered Pictou-Aquash’s execution. He refused. On their last visit, they stated that this would be his final chance to cooperate; if he would not testify, they would charge him with her murder.
During Graham’s extradition hearing, Peltier submitted an affidavit stating that he had been offered his freedom within ten days if he signed an affidavit to implicate John Graham in Anna Mac’s murder, Peltier refused. There is no physical evidence against Graham, only more unreliable, FBI-tainted testimony. Furthermore, US and Canadian court systems have no jurisdiction or authority over indigenous people. We have the right to practice our own justice system—something recognized in Canadian law.
Graham’s current legal struggle reflects the political repression faced by Native activists who have defended their land and their traditional way of life. Most of British Columbia has never been ceded to any colonial government, and the indigenous nations living there have full jurisdiction over their lands and resources.
British Columbia is very rich in natural resources—it has the eighth-highest mineral potential in the world. The province also has plans to carve up the mountains with wall-to-wall ski resorts by 2010. Currently, there is much indigenous resistance to mining and resort development. The most extreme case was the Gustafsen Lake standoff in 1995, when the government deployed 400 Royal Canadian Mounted Police tactical-assault-team members to kill about 20 Natives who had defied a trespass notice and were living within their traditional tribal territories. Since then, dozens of Native people who have defended their lands have been criminalized.
John Graham and Arlo Looking Cloud’s current struggle for their own freedom is a clear message being sent out to all Native land defenders. This is a threat being made against anyone who dares to stand up to the corporations that are stealing our lands. Now is the time to come together and make a strong stand. We will be tested more in the coming years.
For more infomation, contact the John Graham Defense Committee, 15 Firth Rd, Whitehorse, Yukon Y1A 4R5, Canada; (867) 633-2480; email; John Graham Defense Committee; Native Youth Movement (NYM)-Coast Salish Territories, email.
Billie Pierre is a Nlaka’Pamux/Saulteaux woman based in Vancouver. She’s a NYM OG and joined in 1995.