A Biography of Anna Mae



From the era of Native American political activism and militancy during the early 1970s, there is no more haunting figure than Anna Mae Pictou Aquash. An active American Indian Movement (AIM) member, as well as mother, wife, social worker, and day care teacher, her image is powerful as much for her untimely death as for her life's work. Found murdered on the Pine Ridge Reservation during a time of tremendous social and political upheaval, she has become a symbol of the movement for Indian rights.

Childhood on a Micmac Reserve

Anna Mae was born on March 27, 1945 to Mary Ellen Pictou and Francis Thomas Levi, both Micmac Indians. She came into the world in a small Indian village just outside the town of Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia, Canada. Levi left before Anna Mae was born, and Mary Ellen's third grade education didn't provide her the skills required to support her children. Still a young woman herself, Mary Ellen Pictou admitted to being a little too unsettled to offer her girls much in the way of discipline. Aquash spent her early years in an

atmosphere of poverty and uncertainty.

Aquash's mother married Noel Sapier, a Micmac traditionalist, in 1949. A strong believer in the preservation of what was left of the Micmac culture and religion, Sapier brought discipline and emotional security to the family. He moved them to Pictou's Landing, another small Micmac reserve, and tried to make a living between seasonal farmhand jobs and traditional craftwork. Although they were still very poor, Aquash learned a great deal about the richness of her people's culture at this time.

Poverty often breeds disease, and conditions were very poor at Pictou's Landing. In 1953, Aquash was plagued with recurrent eye infections. By the time an Indian Department physician recognized the signs of tuberculosis of the eye, Aquash had already developed tuberculosis of the lung. She recovered but was physically weak for some time afterward.

In 1956, Noel Sapier died of cancer, and a new phase of Aquash's childhood began. Until then, she had encountered racism mostly during trips to nearby towns. Now she went to an off-reserve school and was shocked by the way she was treated there. Although reserve schools were notoriously below standards, Aquash maintained an A-average before attending her new school. By the end of her first year, however, she was failing all her subjects. In later years, she would often talk about how the constant jeers, racial slurs, and lewd comments had ruined her school years. Aquash was not alone; most of her Micmac tribespeople followed the same pattern of failure when they enrolled in off-reserve schools.

Aquash's difficulties with verbal and sometimes physical threats from classmates continued in high school. She steadily performed at lower and lower grade levels, but she stayed in school, something that many of her Indian classmates had not done. Her school problems were compounded in 1956, when her mother ran away to another reserve to marry Wilford Barlov. Aquash and her siblings came home to find that they had been abandoned. Because it was common for Micmacs to work as migrant farmhands throughout the Maritime Provinces and New England, and Aquash herself had worked summers as a harvester, she dropped out of school and turned to the only profession she knew, working the potato and berry harvest.

New Life in Boston

At the age of 17, Aquash decided to move to Boston to seek her fortune. Reportedly on something of a dare, she went there with Jake Maloney, a young Micmac she knew but had never dated. They found themselves in Boston in 1962, a strange, noisy, bustling world for people used to reserve life. The presence of many other Micmacs who had also moved there made the transition somewhat easier, though, and the couple soon settled in.

Aquash began working in a factory and set up house with Jake. They considered themselves married and started a family. In 1964 and 1965, Aquash gave birth to daughters Denise and Deborah. Just after Deborah's birth, the couple married in New Brunswick and moved to another Micmac reserve. Although they had enjoyed life in Boston, they had mixed feelings about raising their daughters in such a big city, and they moved back and forth between Boston and the Maritime Provinces in Nova Scotia several times. During their stays in Canada, they immersed themselves in Micmac tradition, learning much from Jake's step-uncle, one of the few remaining Micmacs who kept to the old ways.

Become a Community Organizer

In 1968, Natives were calling for equal rights, cultural recognition, and the fulfillment of promises made in treaties. Aquash worked as a volunteer in the Boston Indian Council's headquarters while holding down her factory job. Her council work centered on helping young, urban Natives develop self-esteem, a technique that seemed to help them avoid alcohol abuse. It was a topic close to Aquash's own life. At this time she and Jake Maloney had broken off their marriage and, for a short period after the breakup, she frequently drank too much. She had also seen the havoc created by heavy drinking in Indian communities.

At the Indian Council Aquash heard about a planned protest by AIM. A number of New England AIM members were joining with national leader Russell Means to protest the "official" version of Thanksgiving by converging on the Mayflower II, a reconstruction of the ship that carried the Pilgrims to America. The traditional story behind Thanksgiving was that the Pilgrims were greeted by- and shared a feast with--welcoming Indians. This version, of course, neglected to mention the legacy of conquest and slaughter that Europeans brought to the New World. Aquash participated in the protest and the event made her even more determined to work for Native rights.

Aquash, along with her daughters, moved to Bar Harbor, Maine, to work in the Teaching and Research in Bicultural Education School Project (TRIBES). The girls attended the school and Pictou taught. The curriculum there consisted of traditional subjects as well as Indian history, values, and beliefs to foster pride in the students. Although the project was successful, it was closed in 1972, when funding was cut. The family returned to Boston, where Aquash enrolled in the New Careers program at Wheelock College. This program included both classroom instruction and community work. Pictou's assignment was teaching at a day care center in Roxbury, a predominately African American section of Boston. She excelled in the program and in her work, and was eventually offered a scholarship to attend Brandeis University in Massachusetts. Aquash declined the offer, preferring to continue her work in the black and Indian communities.

The Trail of Broken Treaties March

Around this time, she met and began a relationship with Nogeeshik Aquash, a Chippewa artist from Ontario. Together, they raised her daughters and became more involved in the growing Indian rights movement. In 1972 the couple participated in the march on Washington, D.C., called Trail of Broken Treaties. Originating with AIM, the march included Indians from all over the country who converged on the capital to draw attention to Indian issues. The group took over and occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs building and then presented a list of 20 civil rights demands. After a week of occupation, the government promised to review their demands, point by point, a great victory and the first time a national organization of Indians had faced a confrontation as a united people.

Several months later, in April of 1973, a group of 200 Indians, led by AIM, congregated at the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre , in which 500 army soldiers opened fire on a group of Minneconjou Ghost Dancers, killing 300 men, women, and children. Wounded Knee, located near the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, was chosen as the place for protest because of its painful historical significance. AIM wished to draw public attention to its efforts against the reputedly corrupt administration of tribal chairman of the Oglala Sioux, Richard "Dick" Wilson, who used beatings and intimidation to rule the reservation.

After hostilities increased, the town was occupied by 2,000 Indians in a siege lasting 70 days. When word of the occupation and resulting siege by federal troops reached Boston, Pictou and Nogeeshik left for South Dakota. Arriving several days later, they immediately busied themselves by sneaking food and medical supplies to the occupiers. Initially, they camped at Crow Dog's Paradise, the home of medicine men Henry Crow Dog and Leonard Crow Dog. Later, inside one of the stores at Wounded Knee, Aquash helped deliver Pedro, the first son of Mary Brave Bird, who would soon marry Leonard Crow Dog. On April 12, 1973, Anna Mae married Nogeeshik Aquash in a traditional Lakota (Sioux) ceremony presided over by Nicholas Black Elk and Wallace Black Elk.

The standoff at Wounded Knee ended with the indictment of AIM leaders Dennis Banks and Russell Means. The Aquashes returned to Boston, where they continued their work for the movement. Aquash was on her way to becoming a national AIM leader. In 1974, she moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, to work in the AIM office there. Within a year, she was involved in the Menominee Indian takeover of an abandoned Alexian Brothers Catholic Monastery in protest of the termination of their federal Indian status. The conflict in Gresham, Wisconsin, ended peacefully, but from that time on, Aquash was constantly under FBI observation.

Back to Wounded Knee

During the summer of 1975, Aquash and AIM security chief Leonard Peltier attended an AIM conference in Farmington, New Mexico, to lend support to Navajo protests over mining in the Four Corners area. From there, they were called back to Pine Ridge to help organize security for Lakota traditionalists and AIM supporters who were being attacked by Wilson's provisional police force. They camped on the property of the Jumping Bull family. On June 26, 1975, a fight broke out between two FBI agents and AIM members. Two agents and a young Indian were killed. AIM members scattered as an international manhunt began for the FBI agents' killers. Peltier was later arrested, charged, and convicted of the murders of the two FBI agents.

Three months later, in September 1975, Aquash was arrested with several others during a raid on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. Fearing the worst, she jumped bail and went "underground" (hid from the law). In November, she was leaving the Port Madison Reservation in Washington State when federal agents began watching the two vehicles in the AIM caravan. In Oregon, just one mile short of the Idaho border, state troopers stopped the group and Aquash was again arrested. She was extradited to South Dakota in handcuffs to face charges from the raid at Rosebud, as well as federal charges of transporting and possessing firearms and dangerous weapons, including dynamite. Since she had not been indicted on the earlier charges, the South Dakota judge released her on bail; she fled again on November 24, 1975.

On February 24, 1976, a Lakota rancher found Aquash's dead body while riding the perimeter of his property. Her body's deteriorated condition indicated that she had been dead for some time. The body was initially taken to the Pine Ridge Public Health Service for an autopsy. Her cause of death was listed as exposure, and since no one was able to identify her, she was buried as a "Jane Doe"--an anonymous corpse. Her hands were cut off and sent to FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., for possible identification, and a week later, Aquash was identified. When her family was informed, they called on AIM to help them secure a second autopsy. On March 11, 1976, another post-mortem revealed a .32 caliber bullet hole at the base of Anna Mae's skull. Her death was then officially designated a homicide. Aquash was reburied with traditional rites, and the investigation of her murder began.

When Leonard Peltier was arrested for the murder of the two FBI agents at Pine Ridge, the FBI based part of their case against him on the account of a witness. A Lakota woman, Myrtle Poor Bear, claimed she'd seen Peltier commit the murders. She later changed her story, saying that she had been coerced into identifying Peltier as the killer by an FBI agent, who had said she might meet the same end as Anna Mae Aquash. Aquash, whose murder had taken place right after Peltier's arrest, had earlier told the FBI she knew nothing about the murders of the agents and would not cooperate with them.

Although two senators brought the matter before Congress and the Department of Justice, and although Canadian authorities demanded full accounting for the murder of one of their citizens on the federal land of a friendly neighboring country, the investigation never went far. The murder of Anna Mae Aquash remains unsolved, but she is remembered as a powerful symbol of an era of Native rights activism.


Brand, Johanna, The Life and Death of Anna Mae Aquash, James Lorimer, 1978.
Matthiessen, Peter, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, Viking Books, 1983.
Native American Women, edited by Gretchen M. Bataille, Garland Publishing, 1993.

courtesy of http://www.thomson.com/gale/whmbios.html

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