Photograph by: LES BAZSO
Nov. 29, 2010 Montreal Gazette
Thirty-five years after Canadian aboriginal activist Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash was gunned down in an execution-style murder in the South Dakota badlands, Vancouver resident John Graham is scheduled to go on trial this week for her killing.
The highly anticipated trial in South Dakota — following a long extradition battle by Graham in Canada, and years of legal wrangling in the U.S. courts — arises out of one of the most sensational episodes in native American history.
In the early 1970s, Pictou-Aquash, a young Mi'kmaq from Nova Scotia, and Graham, a Southern Tsimshian originally from Yukon, drifted south and joined the American Indian Movement (AIM) and its high-profile occupation of the village of Wounded Knee, South Dakota.
The village is an important, historic symbol for American aboriginals, the site of a massacre of Sioux tribespeople by the U.S. Cavalry in 1890.
In 1973, armed AIM activists took control of the town to protest a variety of native grievances. A 71-day standoff ensued, leaving several people dead on both sides of the siege, and sparking an explosion of violence that lasted several years on the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation.
By 1975, Pictou-Aquash, under suspicion of being an FBI informant, had left AIM and moved to Denver. According to prosecution documents filed in the Graham case, AIM leaders allegedly ordered Graham and two other followers to kidnap Pictou-Aquash and bring her back to Pine Ridge.
Prosecutors say she was tied up, driven north, and raped and interrogated for several days. Finally one morning at sunrise, prosecutors say, three AIM enforcers — Graham, plus Americans Arlo Looking Cloud and Theda Clark — drove Pictou-Aquash to the edge of a ravine on the reservation.
"Aquash begged to go free," say prosecution documents. "She was crying and praying for her kids, and begging them not to do this. . . . Looking Cloud and Graham marched Aquash up a hill and Graham shot her at the top of a cliff. Her body was either thrown, or it tumbled to the bottom."
Pictou-Aquash's partly decomposed body was found by a rancher in 1976. A sloppy initial autopsy said the unidentified woman had died of exposure, and she was buried in an anonymous grave — but not before FBI agents had cut off her hands and sent them to a lab in Washington, D.C.
Fingerprint experts identified the woman as Pictou-Aquash. Her body was exhumed and a second autopsy revealed that the cause of death was a close-range gun shot to the back of her head.
Still, the case lay dormant for many years, during which time AIM's leaders claimed the FBI had murdered Pictou-Aquash. Then, in the late 1990s, a handful of former AIM members began talking about the crime.
In 2001, Looking Cloud and Graham were indicted for first-degree murder. Looking Cloud was convicted in 2004 of "aiding and abetting" Pictou-Aquash's murder, and is now serving a life sentence.
Paul DeMain, the managing editor of News From Indian Country, a Wisconsin-based native newspaper that has investigated the affair, says Looking Cloud and Graham were not the key figures in the crime.
"They are like the Watergate burglars, breaking into the Democratic Committee office to do the dirty work," he says. "The AIM leadership has not been held accountable for this murder or a dozen others committed in that time era (because) none of the AIM leaders ever did their own dirty work. They got people like Arlo and John Graham, who were young warrior-wannabes in the organization."
Graham, 55, has said FBI agents visited him four times at his home in Canada, offering him immunity from prosecution if he named the leaders who ordered Pictou-Aquash's killing.
Graham refused, insisting on his innocence. When the Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear his final extradition appeal in 2007, Graham was transferred to a South Dakota jail.
The only direct, known evidence against Graham is that of Looking Cloud, who has said Graham fired the gun that killed Pictou-Aquash. It's not yet known if Looking Cloud, who remains in prison, will testify at Graham's trial.
Thelma Rios, another former AIM member who was scheduled to go on trial with Graham — but who pleaded guilty earlier this month to being an accessory to the Pictou-Aquash kidnapping — could also testify.
Theda Clark, now in her 80s, has never been charged in the crime, and has always refused to testify against Graham.
Meanwhile, Graham's family and supporters say Graham is the victim of a "travesty of justice" — that his constitutional rights have been violated, and that he won't receive a fair trial in the U.S.
Denise Maloney Pictou, one of the victim's two grown daughters who live in Nova Scotia, is expected to testify at the trial which is scheduled to last up to three weeks.
Although Pictou-Aquash's friends and family are hoping the Graham trial produces information that leads to future prosecutions of more senior AIM figures, they also say that holding the actual killer to account is their main priority.
"What (the family) have always said is, first and foremost, a person made the decision to shoot their mother in the back of the head. Regardless of what position that person held in the organization, somebody took their mother's life and someone should be responsible for that," says Catherine Martin, a Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq and close friend of the Pictou-Aquash family.
"Maybe others were involved, but one person pulled the trigger."