Readers of the New York Times magazine on April 25, 2014 might have been surprised at a story by Eric Konigsberg on the 1976 murder of Anna Aquash. The article of nearly 5,500 words came headlined “Who Killed Anna Mae?” and the answer solves the question why it took nearly forty years for such a piece to appear.
Konigsberg, a former reporter for the New York Times and author of Blood Relation, explains that a South Dakota rancher found the badly decomposed body of a woman who had been shot at close range through the back of the head. The victim was Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, a key player in the American Indian Movement, a “radical” group of Native American militants founded in 1968, the same year as the Black Panthers, “the movement’s model.”
Konigsberg is right about that but after all this time many readers may be as unfamiliar with these groups as they are with Anna Aquash. The Black Panthers and AIM both saw America as intrinsically oppressive and racist, with racism part and parcel of government, the military and law enforcement. Both movements demonized a “white” American governing establishment and saw revolutionary violence and separatism as the only path to change.
“These white people think this country belongs to them,” Anna Aquash once wrote. She was a Mikmaq Indian from Canada who came south to join with AIM and fight the “raggedy-ass pilgrims” who took the land from the Indians back in the day. In 1973 at Wounded Knee, where the US Cavalry killed 200 Indians in 1890, AIM took up arms in a 10-week standoff with the National Guard, the U.S. Marshals Service and the FBI. There at Wounded Knee Anna Aquash met Dennis Banks, along with Russell Means AIM’s most high-profile leader.
Aquash was having an affair with Banks when he was still involved in a common-law marriage with Darlene “Kamook” Nichols. That did not sit well with some movement women of different tribal affiliations, and they saw the affair as a threat to AIM’s stability. At the same time, Konigsberg notes AIM had become “a vortex of paranoia” with factions charging that some members were “pigs” and collaborators.
As Konigsberg has it, Aquash was aware that some thought she was a turncoat. When she and Nichols were jailed, Aquash said she feared for her life. When Aquash was swiftly released on bail, some saw that as evidence of collaboration. Then in 1976 she turned up dead, shot through the back of the head. As this piece shows, it was some time before the case landed in court.
For AIM she was another “lost soldier” in the ongoing war against an oppressive, white racist government. The party line was that the FBI had set up the murder of Aquash to scare and destabilize AIM, but in his investigations Konigsberg found otherwise. Over the last decade, he wrote, “several teams of state and federal attorneys in South Dakota have established that her killing was in fact an inside job, orchestrated by AIM members who believed she was working as an FBI informer.”
Konigsberg finds no evidence that Aquash was an FBI snitch but makes a convincing case that AIM ordered the hit. The story jostles with characters like Marlon Brando and Leonard Peltier, now in prison for killing two FBI agents. The narrative also explains the reluctance to explore murders by militant radicals on the left. As Konigsberg shows, the nation was busy romanticizing and protecting the AIM leaders.
Dennis Banks and Russell Means were “telegenic spokesmen in traditional braids, buckskin fringe and cowboy boots.” They would publish memoirs, appear in Hollywood films such as The Last of the Mohicans, and find themselves showcased on college campuses. As Konigsberg recalls, Andy Warhol rendered a portrait of Means and the Los Angeles Times dubbed Means and Banks “the two most famous Indians since Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.”
Dennis Banks was acquitted of charges over Wounded Knee but convicted of riot and assault over a courthouse gun battle at Custer, South Dakota. Rather than serve time, Banks fled to California. There Governor Jerry Brown refused to extradite him. Banks took full advantage of the protection by studying at UC Davis, teaching at Stanford, and serving as chancellor of Deganawidah-Quetzecoatl University (DQU), a ramshackle outfit near Sacramento.
In 1983, after the election of governor George Deukmejian, Banks fled to a reservation in New York. The intrepid Konigsberg recently tracked him down at his A-frame in Minnesota. The writer asked Banks if he would have advocated killing AIM traitors? He said might not participate directly ““But I would say, ‘Take care of this.’ Or, ‘Take the guy out, and I don’t want to see him again.’”
Further, Banks said, “There are no secrets and questions left. If there’s a burning house, no one gives an order to put out the fire. Someone just goes and does it. It was people who fell into an idea.” That “idea” would be revolutionary violence in the style of the Black Panthers, AIM’s model as Konigsberg explains.
The Black Panther Party for Self Defense emerged in 1966 as a revolutionary movement led by Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver (Soul on Ice). The Panthers duly became an icon the sixties counterculture but those who defended the group neglected their victims, such as Betty Van Patter.
David Horowitz hired Van Patter to keep the books for the Educational Opportunities Corp., which ran a school for children of the Black Panthers. Betty Van Patter soon disappeared and “by the time the police fished her battered body out of San Francisco Bay in January 1975, I knew that her killers were the Panthers themselves.” Horowitz subsequently discovered that “the Panthers had killed more than a dozen people in the course of conducting extortion, prostitution and drug rackets in the Oakland ghetto. While these criminal activities were taking place, the group enjoyed the support of the American left, the Democratic Party.” As he notes, in 1970 Hillary Rodham Clinton helped organize demonstrations to stop the trial of Black Panther leaders “who had tortured and then executed a black youth named Alex Rackley.” His crime? The Panthers suspected he was an informer.
Eldridge Cleaver, the most articulate of the Panther vanguard, said in his last televised interview that “if people had listened to Huey Newton and me in the 1960s, there would have been a holocaust in this country.” As Horowitz noted, “Here is the beginning of any real understanding of what the radical left and its Black Panther vanguard were about in the Sixties.”
The AIM vanguard was about the same thing but politicians, filmmakers and journalists still miss the significance. That’s why the authorities decline to pursue murder cases involving sixties radicals and why articles about their victims are so hard to find. And that’s why the story of AIM murder victim Anna Aquash took so long to appear in the New York Times magazine.
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