Twenty-four years ago in early December, Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash, a Miq’maq from Nova Scotia, was kidnapped from a Denver, Colorado, home, driven to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and shot in the back of the head.
Her body lay in a shallow ditch for three months until it was found the following February. Authorities at the time could not recognize her body and she was buried as a Jane Doe. The coroner concluded that she died of exposure.
A federal judge ordered her body exhumed later that year and a second autopsy was performed by a Minnesota doctor who concluded that the woman died of a gunshot wound. Tests later identified the body as that of Pictou-Aquash.
Pictou-Aquash was an activist on the Pine Ridge Reservation. She was involved in many issues and helped people in any way she could. She was an active member of the American Indian Movement and participated in the events following the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973.
Her life was immortalized in the movie Thunderheart as one of the lead characters who is found shot to death. The character is a composite of Pictou-Aquash and two other women.
The crime was never solved. Who killed her and why was open to speculation and rumour. Some blamed the FBI, others the Guardians of the Oglala Nation (GOONS) who were deputized officers of the Tribal Chairman Bill Wilson and enemies of AIM.
Now it is coming to light that Pictou-Aquash was assassinated by her AIM brothers themselves. According to reports, Pictou-Aquash was kidnapped from her sister’s home in Denver by individuals sent by the AIM leadership. She was accused of being a government informant.
She was transported to the Pine Ridge Reservation and held for a number of days and interrogated. She was finally executed, according to published reports, on the orders from someone in the hierarchy of AIM.
A Grand Jury is taking statements, a key witness has turned State’s evidence and arrests may be imminent.
What is important here is not who killed Pictou-Aquash, although justice must be served onto those responsible, but why she was killed.
Pictou-Aquash was not an informant. There is no proof she was an informant.
She was an outspoken woman who walked the talk. She was the unfortunate victim of gossip, hearsay and the paranoia of the people around her.
The FBI had numerous agents in the South Dakota area and they were determined to break the back of the American Indian Movement. If they couldn’t do it “by the book,” they were not adverse to using dirty tricks such as releasing propaganda to throw suspicion on certain AIM members.
The method is called “bad-jacketing.” The FBI targets certain individuals or groups and plants false information about them where it can be found and used. If you ever saw the movie Mississippi Burning, you would see how the FBI used dirty tricks to crack the Ku Klux Klan. The movie made it look like a noble effort, but in the context of Pine Ridge in the 1970s, the FBI’s actions were far less noble.
There are more than 40 unsolved murders on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the years following 1973. With all the police forces in the area, one would think that solving at least some of these crimes would be a reasonable expectation. But this is not the case.
The FBI has undoubtedly not expended much effort to solve this particular murder. Why did the coroner say she died of exposure when she had a bullet in her head? Pictou-Aquash was known to the FBI, out on bail on a weapons charge; why couldn’t they recognize her body? Did the FBI miscalculate its “bad-jacketing” and not consider that it could get someone killed? Did they try to hide her death to protect, themselves?
This is speculation, of course. But it was speculation that got Pictou-Aquash killed.
There is a lesson to be learned about bad-jacketing. Anyone can be accused of being an informant. It is the easiest thing to do. You want to discredit someone? Call them an informant. Why? Because no one can prove that they are not an informant.
Can you prove you are not an informant? Of course you can’t.
And if outside forces don’t bad-jacket us, we do it to ourselves. Hate, jealousy, paranoia, greed, lust for power and other vices can motivate people to destroy other individuals or groups. We have to be vigilant and not allow events to overtake common-sense which can lead to the death of an innocent victim.
If Pictou-Aquash’s death is to have any value, it is to remind us that hatred, paranoia, gossip, rumour, taken to extremes, can kill.
The editorial appeared in the December 3 issue of The Eastern Door.