Murder trial casts shadow on jailed hero of Wounded Knee

Click to follow
The Independent US

Leonard Peltier is described as the Nelson Mandela of Native Americans. His supporters include the Dalai Lama and Robert Redford. Jailed more than 26 years ago for the murder of two federal agents, Peltier was framed, according to his admirers, for whom he has since become a symbol of the struggle for Native American rights.

But now this image could be forever shattered. A former campaigner claims that not only did Peltier kill the agents but that he had a role in the murder of a Native American woman. As a civil rights activist in the 1970s, the young mother helped him to lead an armed stand-off with the US government at Wounded Knee, scene of the massacre of the Sioux in 1890.

Anna Mae Pictou Aquash's frozen body, her hands severed and with a single bullet wound to the head, was discovered in February 1976 in a gully at Pine Ridge - the reservation on which the village of Wounded Knee is situated - after an unseasonal thaw melted the snow concealing her corpse. She received a traditional burial on the reservation.

While the imprisoned Peltier was becoming an international cause célèbre, the murder of the young woman remained unsolved and all but forgotten by the wider world, just another victim for a people replete with ghosts. Finally, yesterday proceedings against one of her alleged killers opened in what is likely to be the most explosive trial involving Native Americans for more than a generation.

At stake is not only the guilt or innocence of the two men accused of Ms Pictou Aquash's murder but also the reputation of Peltier, 58, who could find himself accused of ordering her death to cover up his guilt.

"I truly believe that this is the tip of the iceberg, the victim's daughter, Denise Maloney Pictou, told The New York Times. "If Anna Mae opens up the door to the rest of the injustices, I'll be there to push forward."

The story of Ms Pictou Aquash, 30, is fixed in the early 1970s when a group of so-called "militant" Native Americans in the American Indian Movement (AIM) were pushing for self-governance and a return to traditional ways. In February 1973, about 200 of them seized the village of Wounded Knee in south-west South Dakota, a traditional home of the Oglala Sioux. The village was chosen for its resonating symbolism: in 1890 about 150 Sioux men, women and children were slaughtered there by the American cavalry.

Ms Pictou Aquash was among the AIM members who held the federal authorities at bay for 71 days. She was undoubtedly militant, once declaring: "These white people think this country belongs to them. They don't realise that they are only in charge right now because there's more of them than there are of us. The whole country changed with only a handful of raggedly-ass pilgrims that came over here in the 1500s. And it can take a handful of raggedy-ass Indians to do the same, and I intend to be one of those raggedy-ass Indians."

After the stand-off, confrontation between AIM and the authorities continued and two years later trouble escalated. In June 1975, two agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, were involved in a shoot-out with AIM members as they tried to arrest a robbery suspect. One Native American died and the two FBI officers were also killed, finished off at close range with bullets to the head. Of those arrested, Peltier was the only one convicted.

His supporters say the evidence was deeply flawed. In 1999 Amnesty International called for a presidential pardon, saying: "The organisation remains concerned about the fairness of the proceedings leading to his conviction and believes that political factors may have influenced the way in which the case was prosecuted."

The federal authorities have refused to budge. Peltier, always maintaining his innocence, has exhausted all legal appeals.

Justice for Ms Pictou Aquash has been equally slow. The AIM alleged that she had been killed by the federal authorities, who had questioned her on firearms charges. Its spokesman, Vernon Bellecourt, said: "How did they do it? I don't know. How they set it up? I don't know."

But people whispered different things. Maybe the young woman was a FBI spy. Maybe she was silenced by AIM. People began to point fingers.

Robert Ecoffey, the deputy director of law enforcement at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said: "The case would be dead for a long time then it would come back to life and you would hear something. Feelings changed ... people realised now that justice had to be done for Anna Mae."

A year ago the authorities charged two AIM members, John Graham and Arlo Looking Cloud, with the young mother's murder. Mr Graham is fighting extradition from Canada while Mr Looking Cloud's trial opened yesterday in Rapid City, South Dakota, where he has pleaded not guilty.

The authorities have refused to comment on a possible motive but say they do not believe Mr Looking Cloud plotted the killing alone. For the people of Pine Ridge and the wider Native American community it would be shocking enough if the two men were convicted. But even more staggering is the allegation that the hit was ordered by Peltier and the AIM leadership to cover-up his own guilt.

Those allegations have been made most vocally by Paul DeMain, the editor of the Native American twice-weekly newspaper News from Indian Country. A decade ago Mr DeMain started investigating Peltier's case expecting to uncover a frame-up. Instead he concluded that while the evidence used by prosecutors was false, Peltier was indeed guilty. He said yesterday: "What I found was not a case where the government may have framed an innocent man but where the government may have framed a guilty man."

Mr DeMain said he had collected testimony from several people to whom Peltier had allegedly bragged about killing the agents after going on the run. He said Peltier had even re-enacted the killings in front of AIM members. Ms Pictou Aquash was among them, and he said there was evidence the AIM had been threatening and interrogating the young woman in the weeks before her death. "She was silenced because she knew about the bragging of Peltier," he said.

From his cell in Leavenworth prison, Kansas, Peltier has sued Mr DeMain for libel. His lawyer, Barry Bachrach, denies his client was involved. "He denies shooting the agents and thus denies that a motive for the murder of Anna Mae [existed] because he supposedly admitted to her that he killed the agents," he said. "You can get people to say anything. But it's a falsehood that Anna Mae was murdered as a result of something Leonard supposedly admitted to her."