Fourteen years have passed since the shocking story of Anna Mae Aquash was first published. The recent surge of support for imprisoned Indian rights activist Leonard Peltier reminds us once more of the unsolved, neglected and almost-forgotten case of Ms. Aquash.
In February 1976, the murdered body of this thirty-one-year-old Micmac Indian from Nova Scotia was found on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the same troubled reservation which seven months earlier spawned the murder charges against Leonard Peltier. Both incidents have raised serious concerns with respect to the FBI's role in crushing legitimate native dissent and attempting to break the American Indian Movement (AIM). They raise as well major questions regarding the Canadian justice system and its relationship with the FBI in these cases.
During the past year, substantial information has been released to the public with respect to the FBI's deliberate use of fraud in the conviction of Leonard Peltier. First, there was the excellent book by Peter Matthiessen In the Spirit of Crazy Horse first published in 1983 but not released until 1991 due to court actions taken against it by the former Governor of South Dakota and by FBI agent Daniel Price. Second, there was the Robert Redford film Incident at Oglala which was released in late 1991 and is still being shown throughout Canada and the United States. These, along with many other articles, editorials, radio and television interviews, have focused attention on the irregularities in the Leonard Peltier convictions and the corrupt practices of the American justice system with respect to AIM and Indian rights advocacy. Third, there was the recent appeal in the U.S. Federal Court at St. Paul, Minnesota on November 9, 1992 where fifty-five Canadian MPs presented an amicus brief affirming that the affidavit submitted to the Canadian court in 1976 for the extradition of Leonard Peltier was fraudulent and, in consequence, should be declared null and void. They asked the court to redress this grievous wrong by granting Leonard Peltier's appeal. That appeal is still under deliberation.
The incidents leading to the conviction of Leonard Peltier took place on the Pine Ridge Reservation on June 27, 1975, although there had been serious trouble on that reservation going back to 1972. On that day, two FBI agents came to the reservation allegedly looking for stolen property. When they tried to enter a ranch without a search warrant, shots were fired and soon a large contingent of FBI agents came to the reservation where a full-scale shoot-out occurred. At the end of the day, two FBI agents and one Indian were killed. Leonard Peltier and two other Sioux Indians were charged with murdering the two FBI agents. The two co-accused were quickly captured in the U.S. but Peltier fled to Canada and was arrested in Alberta in February 1976. Peltier's extradition hearings took place in Vancouver and were concluded in December 1976 when he was sent back to the United States for trial. The principal evidence at Peltier's extradition was an affidavit signed by a Myrtle Poor Bear who stated that she was a friend of Peltier's and was present at the shooting. Later, it was revealed that Myrtle Poor Bear was not a friend of Peltier's and was nowhere near the incident at the time of the shootings. There is evidence that she was coerced to sign this affidavit by the FBI. Following Peltier's conviction on both murder charges, it was discovered that of the three male witnesses against Peltier two had their charges dropped and later said they had been coerced and one had died. Furthermore, it was shown under American Freedom of Information laws that the FBI had withheld certain evidence which would have been helpful to Peltier. At Peltier's first appeal in 1986, the court concluded that his defence at trial had been hampered by misconduct and possible perjury but it still did not order a new trial. It is significant to note that the two other co-accused, Darrell Butler and Robert Robideau, had earlier been acquitted on the grounds that there was no direct evidence linking them to the killing of the two FBI agents. One should also recall that there had been no serious effort to investigate the murder of the Indian killed at Pine Ridge in the same incidentanother example of a double standard.
Since that time there has been a growing movement in support of Leonard Peltier's cause. Committees have been formed in the United States, Canada and throughout the world requesting that (after fourteen years) he be released from prison or at the very least be granted a new trial. This case has become symbolic of the shabby manner in which aboriginal people have been treated by the justice system in the United States and in Canada.
When I was Minister of Indian Affairs, I was approached in the autumn of 1976 to intervene in this case. I was advised that this would be improper and that justice would take its course. Furthermore, there was no strong evidence of fraud at that time. When it came out a few years later that Myrtle Poor Bear's affidavit was false, I felt betrayed and insulted. In consequence, I decided to do all I could to correct this injustice and, on several occasions, with Jim Fulton, M.P. I have raised this matter in Parliament so far without any positive response from the government. I likewise assisted with the Redford film, signed the amicus brief and have spoken out wherever possible.
Unfortunately, the tragedy of Anna Mae Aquash has not received the same attention, although the conduct of the justice authorities in her case is equally fraudulent and reprehensible. After her body was found alongside a road on the Pine Ridge Reservation, nothing was done to identify her body and the autopsy was carried out in an incomplete and cursory manner. The medical examiner reported that she had died from exposure, although there were many indications that showed otherwise, and he sent her body for burial within a very short period of time. He also took the unusual step of severing both her hands at the wrist and sent them to the FBI in a jar. Finally, the body was buried in an unmarked grave without a death or burial certificate. One can only conclude, as this book suggests, that at fault was l "something far more serious than casual and undisciplined police procedures"; rather "a conspiracy to prevent the discovery and investigation of the murder of Anna Mae Aquash."
Following the burial, it was finally revealed that the unknown corpse was Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, a Micmac Indian from Nova Scotia who was a well-known activist in the American Indian Movement and a close friend of AIM leaders Dennis Banks and Leonard Peltier. She had been present at the 1973 I Wounded Knee occupation and since November 1975 had been a fugitive from the FBI. When the identification was announced, her friends and family immediately sought an order to exhume the body for a second autopsy. The said autopsy was approved and took place on March 11, 1976 at the Pine Ridge Hospital. It did not take long to discover that the real cause of death was a .32 calibre bullet and not exposure. Anna Mae Aquash had been shot at close range into the back of her head.
It is hoped that the republication of this book, coupled with the recent impetus for the cause of Leonard Peltier, will result in a renewed effort to correct the injustices in both cases. Leonard Peltier deserves a new and fair trial, and the real killers of Anna Mae Aquash should be identified and charged. These cases raise extremely serious questions. By what right do law enforcement authorities take the law into their own hands by manufacturing and withholding evidence, and by conspiracy and illegality attack legitimate dissent and lawful aboriginal advocacy?
There are also questions respecting the involvement of Canadian authorities, including the RCMP and the Department of Justice. Why have we so readily accepted fraud against our justice system in the Peltier extradition and not insisted on answers from the American government? We should have vigorously protested the use of a false affidavit and, at the very least, requested a new trial. In the case of Anna Mae Aquash, the government, the media and the public should have demanded answers. Why was a murdered Canadian Indian illegally buried after an incomplete autopsy and her body mutilated? In answer to a question in the House of Commons on May 14, 1976, the Minister for External Affairs said that he had instructed our embassy in Washington to ask the United States for an urgent investigation into the case since it raised many questions of great concern. The only answer ever received was that the FBI was continuing to investigate the death of Ms. Aquash. Unfortunately, the Canadian government accepted these reports as a sufficient gesture and continued to accept as fact information from the very U.S. agency whose actions were being questioned and criticized. Questions have also been raised as to what extent the RCMP Intelligence Services cooperated with the FBI in monitoring and reporting on Canadians associated with the American Indian Movement. While the Canadian government was justifiably concerned with terrorism and subversion, there was no authority given to investigate or curtail legitimate, democratic activism and advocacy for the native cause. Many of these issues were examined before the McDonald Commission into alleged RCMP wrongdoing in the late 1970s.
Since that time, Canadians have been made much more aware of the injustices to aboriginal people by our courts and the police. The Donald Marshall case was a shocking revelation to Canadians. In addition, much work was done by the Special Parliamentary Committee on Indian Self-Government in 1982-83. Finally, in 1991-92 we had the constitutional discussions, the referendum debate, the establishment of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and the serious issues raised on the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus. All have done much to sensitize Canadians to the presence and situation of the aboriginal peoples. That having been said, much still remains to be done, and the revelation of the whole truth with respect to Anna Mae Aquash and Leonard Peltier is essential in balancing the scales.
Warren Allmand, M.P. December l7, 1992