“Two men may be guilty of Annie Mae’s murder but they were not the decision-makers.” – John Trudell
Editor’s note: John Trudell is the quintessential rebel. Musical and poetic icon in his second incarnation, during his early public career he was a near-messianic spokesman for the American Indian Movement. Always on the edge of the hierarchical leadership structure developed by AIM, Trudell lived through the heady years of the movement in a constant state of confrontation. He developed an extensive public appreciative of his visionary and poetic expression in the midst of chaotic violence that engulfed those years. He was an early participant and spokesman for the Alcatraz occupation (1969) and politically active through the turbulent period of the mid-1970s.
In a running conversation with Indian Country Today Senior Editor Jose Barreiro, Trudell seeks to address lingering issues in the dissolution of AIM and particularly in the case of Annie Mae Pictou-Aquash, the Micmac woman and AIM activist murdered in South Dakota during the winter of 1975 – ’76. One man, Arlo Looking Cloud, has been convicted in the murder while a second indicted man, John Graham, awaits extradition from Canada to the United States to stand trial.
This series covers Trudell’s perspective on the issues of violence in the activist movement where the renowned poet proposes a theory of the “deeply embedded government operative” and the role of rogue government infiltration programs in stimulating violence in social and political movements. Trudell also addresses his own shift from political organizing to the musical poetics of stage and film.
ICT: It’s been 30 years since the killing of Annie Mae Pictou- Aquash. The case remains largely unsolved, although there has been one conviction in recent years. You’ve expressed interest in advancing some thoughts on the subject. I wonder how you’re feeling about where that investigation might be at and where you would like to see it go?
Trudell: It’s interesting how the investigation into the killing of Annie Mae has unfolded. Where it stands right now, Arlo Looking Cloud has been convicted and he is serving time in the U.S. for his part in the crime. John Graham, “John Boy,” is in Canada fighting extradition back to stand trial for murder, and my understanding is that he has been ordered to be extradited back but he is on a final appeal.
ICT: So we understand that the extradition is imminent.
Trudell: This is the interesting part: to see if he actually gets extradited. Because he then would have nothing to lose and he is the one who would most likely know who made the actual decision to have Annie Mae killed.
My overall view of this thing, I think that agents in the government were behind it. I mean this very seriously, that the government is the main force behind the killing of Annie Mae and the direct link representing the government would be agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I think that Annie Mae’s death is a result of a larger counterintelligence Cointel program that was being directed at AIM at that time. Some of those excesses by government agencies were later curtailed by the Congress, although now things appear to be going the other way; but in this case, I believe the government is still covering up.
Annie Mae was murdered in 1975 and I know that by the 1980s Arlo had testified to the grand jury. It was still the 1980s when Arlo was first picked up and taken in for questioning by the government about this, about her abduction and killing. And so, considering that there were implications that AIM leadership at some level may have been involved in it, I’ve always found it interesting that the government did not more aggressively pursue her killing in the 1970s and in the 1980s – why did they not aggressively pursue it?
ICT: The implication of AIM leadership involvement in her execution surfaced publicly certainly by the 1980s.
Trudell: Well, when Arlo’s story started coming out is when I heard it directly, in 1988. I heard it when Arlo told me about it; but when I look back at the story that Arlo told, it became obvious to me early that this whole trail of decision-making on the killing of Annie Mae could possibly lead to somebody within the AIM leadership. And I found it interesting that the government didn’t pursue that – I wondered why the government, after so much persecution of AIM, just didn’t get on that one and pursue it. Now, they’ve got all these mandates and attempts to discredit AIM leadership, to attack AIM leadership, and here is the hottest possible case – why wait 25 years to make the accusations?
I would suggest this is on purpose. It is because trails go cold, evidence is lost, people forget; you know, putting distance between the event and when they went to deal with it. Over time, things are more easily rearranged. So we can see that through the years there have been close to a half-dozen grand juries about this and nothing was ever actively pursued beyond that. And so, I think that as time has passed the government is resurrecting the case now to try to just lay it at AIM, at the folks in AIM that their extended personnel was able to agitate and manipulate.
ICT: You feel they didn’t fully investigate it before?
Trudell: Not aggressively. And there were no indictments. For some reason, they would get shut down or go away or whatever. And that had been the history of it until this last and present round when they indicted John Boy and Arlo Looking Cloud and took Arlo to trial and convicted him. Now they are going after John Boy, who has fought it from Canada.
I say this is interesting now because if John Boy gets extradited back and stands trial, then I think that it creates a real opportunity to find out very specifically and exactly who is behind Annie Mae’s murder. Because no matter what role John Boy Graham may or may not have played in this, he was never the order-giver. And Arlo was never the order-giver. These were not the people who gave the orders. These are the people that we can allege were following the orders.
ICT: These two men would not make that kind of decision on their own. They would have no purpose to do it.
Trudell: That’s the key part – having no purpose to do it. See, she wasn’t a threat, a risk; she posed no danger. She posed absolutely no danger to the group that took her; and to the men who allegedly shot her, in particular, she posed no threat. Again, they were not the decision-makers.
ICT: According to the testimony in the cases so far, Annie Mae was kidnapped in Denver and brought to the place of her shooting in the Badlands, via a number of safe-houses, in Rapid City and at Rosebud Reservation. At a house in Rosebud, according to testimony at Arlo Looking Cloud’s trial, Annie Mae with Arlo guarding her waited in the car as John Graham went in and got the final instructions on what to do with her. Are you saying he emerged from the house with the instructions to execute?
Trudell: No doubt someone inside [the house] made a decision that came back to that running car. So, I keep having the suspicion way in the back of my mind that somehow, that maybe, John Boy won’t be extradited back down into U.S. courts on some technicality or other. For one thing, the U.S. attorney that had pursued the case has now been changed and there’s a different U.S. attorney now. So I don’t trust the thing right now, just in the sense that it serves the government’s purpose not to extradite. Because government excesses were committed at that time that led to shameful deaths. Better to close the book. And then that would be the FBI’s way of closing this case, because it would be left on Arlo Looking Cloud.
ICT: That would close the case.
Trudell: That would close the case and Arlo is the one left holding everything. And when I think about this whole process, that Arlo is probably the only, other than being in the time and place that he was at, and a very confused head, I think that Arlo is the only innocent one in all of this. And I do. And I’m going to say innocent from the sense that, whatever happened, he couldn’t live with it. See, everyone else could. He couldn’t. He was the most innocent of all of them and he is the one having to do the time. And as I look at it the other part of the context is that Arlo is the full-blood traditionalist – knows the ceremonies, speaks the language, knows the songs – and everybody else involved in this didn’t have the same degree of traditional attachment so that the one who is the most traditional, the one who most represents the ancestors, is the one left holding the bag on this thing.
ICT: He’s the one who couldn’t put it behind him.
Trudell: That’s right. And so it all gets dumped back on him. And you look at Annie Mae: and Annie Mae, in her own way, represented that same sense of traditionalism. And she’s the one that gets murdered.
ICT: A selfless kind of spirit.
Trudell: Yes, very selfless. She was in it for the people. It wasn’t about any of the other things. It was about the people. And I can’t say what motivated her, whether it was anger or rage or grief. I can’t say her motivations, but I do know that Annie Mae truly was … out of that whole time frame, if we are going to call people “leaders” and make those kind of identities, she truly was a people’s leader. But not by choosing that identity; she never took that identity. She just was very intense and very sincere.