APRIL 25, 2014
ON FEB. 24, 1976, A RANCHER IN SOUTH DAKOTA WAS INSTALLING A FENCE ON LAND SITUATED ALONG IT WOULD TAKE INVESTIGATORS A WEEK TO IDENTIFY THE BODY AS THAT OF 30-YEAR-OLD ANNA MAE PICTOU AQUASH, A PRINCIPAL IN THE AMERICAN INDIAN MOVEMENT. AIM WAS THE COUNTRY’S MOST VISIBLE, AND RADICAL, ADVOCACY GROUP FOR NATIVE AMERICAN CIVIL RIGHTS. THE TRAVELING BAND OF MILITANTS HAD FORCIBLY TAKEN OVER THE BUREAU OF INDIAN AFFAIRS HEADQUARTERS IN WASHINGTON TO DEMAND, AMONG OTHER THINGS, THE RETURN OF VALUABLE FEDERAL LAND TO INDIGENOUS TRIBES. “WE’RE THE LANDLORD OF THIS COUNTRY,” ONE SLOGAN WENT. “AND THE RENT IS DUE
Who Killed Anna Mae?
AIM was founded in Minneapolis in 1968, the same year the Black Panthers — the movement’s model — ambushed Oakland police officers and Cesar Chavez fasted to promote nonviolence. Its leaders included Dennis Banks and Russell Means, telegenic spokesmen in traditional braids, buckskin fringe and cowboy boots. They would publish memoirs, act in Hollywood films and address crowds on Ivy League campuses. Where Means was full of bluster and indignation (Andy Warhol painted his portrait), Banks was soulful and charismatic. The Los Angeles Times once called them “the two most famous Indians since Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.”
Aquah had been having an affair with Banks the year she disappeared. Although he was in a common-law marriage with someone else, Aquash was convinced that she was his true match. They met almost three years earlier at the siege of Wounded Knee, a 10-week armed standoff between residents of Pine Ridge who opposed the tribal government and agents from the National Guard, the U.S. Marshals Service and the F.B.I. (Wounded Knee was chosen because that was where more than 200 Indians were killed by the U.S. Cavalry in 1890.) When she heard about the revolt there, Aquash, a Mikmaq Indian from Canada, left her two young daughters with her sister in Boston and traveled to join AIM volunteers who had taken up the cause. “These white people think this country belongs to them,” Aquash wrote in a letter to her sister at the time. “The whole country changed with only a handful of raggedy-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.” On her first night in South Dakota, Banks told her that newcomers were needed on kitchen duty. “Mr. Banks,” she replied, “I didn’t come here to wash dishes. I came here to fight.”
At the time of Aquash’s death, AIM was splintering and Banks was a fugitive. Prosecutors had filed criminal charges against many of the participants at Wounded Knee — by one count, more than 400 arrests and 275 indictments. Banks, already facing a 15-year prison sentence for unrelated charges of rioting and assault, claimed that he feared for his life. William Janklow, who was running for state attorney general, told a newspaper during his campaign, “The only way to deal with the Indian problem in South Dakota is to put a gun to AIM leaders’ heads and pull the trigger.”
For a time, Pine Ridge’s murder rate was the highest in the nation. So locals were not all that surprised when Anna Mae Aquash turned up dead: She was just one more soldier lost in the fight against a government that had, after all, dedicated itself for centuries to the subjugation of the country’s native peoples. But over the last decade, several teams of state and federal attorneys in South Dakota have established that her killing was in fact an inside job, orchestrated by AIM members who believed she was working as an F.B.I. informer.
To Aquash’s compatriots, watching the truth seep out has been unsettling. It’s easy, so many years on, to forget the tumult of the civil rights era: the blood in the streets, the palace revolutions. What to do when the search for answers reveals that several of your own were actually the culprits? What if, in the final unfolding of this morality play, the heroes turn out to have acted unheroically?
“You think you want the dirty details, but you don’t,” Aquash’s friend Margo Thunderbird told me recently. “The movement was the defining experience in our lives, but the only thing my daughter learned about Annie Mae — in an Indian school — was not the principles she fought for, but how she was killed by AIM. Once, I prayed at sun dance: ‘Show me who did this to her.’ Anna Mae came to me in a dream and said, ‘Leave me alone, Margo.’ ”
Between 1976 and 1999, four grand juries took up the case without producing any arrests. Nobody associated with AIM would talk about it under oath, and the investigation remained a black hole — until, in 2000, a woman named Darlene (Ka-Mook) Nichols was persuaded to help.
Once, I prayed at sun dance: ‘‘Show me who did this to her.’’ Anna Mae came to me in a dream and said, ‘‘Leave me alone, Margo.’’
Continue reading the main storyNichols was Aquash’s friend, but also her rival, as Dennis Banks’s common-law wife. Just a few months before the murder, she learned of his affair with Aquash. That’s one of many reasons, Nichols said, that her motives for cooperating with investigators have been questioned. In the eyes of AIM loyalists and among residents of her native Pine Ridge, it amounts to heresy. “But more than anything, I just wanted to get to the bottom of it, to find out what happened,” Nichols told me recently. “So many people have tried so hard to make it go away.”Nichols was 17 when she met Banks. It was 1972, and he brought an AIM squad to town to hold a series of rallies. The next year, she abandoned her plans for college and ran off with him. “He called and said he’d made arrangements for me to fly and meet him,” Nichols recalled. “I’d told him I had to break up with my boyfriend and finish high school first. From that point on, we were a couple.”
Banks and Nichols had four children together, but it was an unstable life. All around them were arraignments, car chases, shootouts with the police. “It was one thing after another,” she said. “At the time, I didn’t think about the consequences. I believed in the movement. That was my world.”
When Banks went into hiding in 1975, Nichols and Aquash joined him at various times as his entourage moved throughout the West for more than three months. In Los Angeles, Marlon Brando, an AIM sympathizer, lent Banks a motor home and $10,000 for food and gas. Also along for the ride was Leonard Peltier, who was wanted in connection with the murder of two F.B.I. agents on Pine Ridge. In November, the group was heading south through Oregon when a state trooper pulled over the R.V., which was full of guns and explosives, and ordered everybody out. Peltier took off on foot and was shot in the back, but he escaped into the woods. (He would later be captured, convicted and sentenced to life in prison, despite the efforts of celebrities and human rights activists who claimed that he didn’t receive a fair trial.) Banks stayed behind the wheel and sped away as officers shot at him.
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When the gunshots stopped, the two women were taken to jail, where they shared a cell. Nichols said they got along, despite Aquash’s romantic involvement with Banks. “I was over it by now,” she told me. “I mean, why should I lose a friend because of Dennis? We never talked about him. We read a lot of magazines.”
But Aquash wasn’t as nonchalant. Though her affair with Banks was brief, she was devastated when, in early 1975, he ended it to remain with Nichols. According to “The Life and Death of Anna Mae Aquash,” by Johanna Brand, Aquash wrote a poem:
But the sun is up and you’re going?
My heart is filled with tears
please don’t go, I need you walking by my side. . . .
The road is long and weary
And I get so tired. . . .
Aquash was a powerful figure in AIM, but also something of an outsider. Having grown up in the Maritime tribes of Nova Scotia, she joined the American struggle knowing hardly a soul. She was tough and boyishly pretty. One photograph from that time shows Aquash digging a foxhole with a golf club.
Dennis Banks in the 1970s.CreditPhotograph by Michelle Vignes/The Bancroft Library/University of California, Berkeley
It was not lost on Aquash that while women made up roughly half of the movement’s ranks, Banks, Means and a handful of men got all the attention. “We were doing what Indian women did for thousands of years, which was stand behind the men and prop them up,” says Margo Thunderbird, who worked with Aquash in St. Paul and California, writing speeches for AIM’s leaders. “We wanted to present an image, and the angry Indian man was better than angry Indian women. Anna Mae and I said to each other, ‘Do we want to be the ones who get in their way?’ The men were showtime.”
There was tension among the male leaders. Banks, an Ojibwa from Minnesota, needed the support of the Sioux tribes, who were naturally loyal to Means, a South Dakota native. His union with Nichols was regarded as an “alliance marriage,” according to Robert Warrior, a former director of the American Indian studies program at the University of Illinois and co-author of “Like a Hurricane,” a book about AIM’s early history. “A lot of people respected Dennis in the Sioux world, and that is hard for an Ojibwa to do,” Warrior says. “They’re old foes. The Ojibwa essentially drove the Sioux out of Minnesota 200 years ago and forced them west. The Sioux still carry that around.” Banks took to certain rituals, such as the Sioux sweat lodge and sun-dance ceremonies. “I became much more one of them rather than Ka-Mook becoming one of mine,” Banks told me.
Aquash’s friends say her affair with Banks brought particular resentment from a group of militant, mostly Sioux women who called themselves the Pie Patrol and viewed her as a threat to AIM’s stability. Jean Roach, a young AIM supporter at the time, described the Pie Patrol to me as the ones who got on other women’s cases for things like wearing a bikini top to the AIM office in Rapid City. “They didn’t like Anna Mae at all,” Roach said.
By this point, AIM had become a vortex of paranoia. “Different crews were ‘bad-jacketing’ each other, calling them pigs,” or collaborators with the feds, says Aquash’s friend Melvin Lee Houston. “Someone put a jacket on Anna Mae. I’m angry with my brothers and sisters for not stopping it.”
Darlene (Ka-Mook) Nichols in 1982.CreditPhotograph by Michelle Vignes/The Bancroft Library/University of California, Berkeley
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When the women were in jail together, Nichols realized that Aquash was terrified about being released. Aquash told her she was aware that some people thought she was a turncoat. Suspicions had arisen when she was quickly let go after an earlier arrest, while others who had been with her stood trial. In Brando’s motor home, Peltier had confessed to both women that he shot an F.B.I. agent, making a gun with his thumb and forefinger and telling them that the man “was begging for his life, but I shot him anyway.” If Aquash ever shared that with the authorities, it would make her a significant threat to Peltier and AIM. Aquash told Nichols that she feared for her life. Soon, the women were escorted by marshals to the back of a commercial airplane, flown to Wichita and then sent to separate jails — Nichols in Kansas and Aquash in South Dakota. Aquash was again swiftly released on bail.
“It was the last time I saw her,” Nichols said. A month later, Aquash was dead.
“For a long time, it was a given among Indians that the F.B.I. engineered Aquash’s murder as a way of scaring and destabilizing AIM,” says Paul DeMain, the editor of News From Indian Country, whose aggressive reporting on the case is often credited with spurring investigators’ interest in it. AIM considered itself at war with the federal government and its proxy, the F.B.I., whose Counterintelligence Program was devised to monitor and take down the radicals of the New Left that the bureau deemed “subversive,” including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Weather Underground. AIM’s concerns weren’t entirely unfounded. A few months before Aquash was killed, one of Banks’s bodyguards, Douglas Durham, appeared on national TV to declare that he was actually a “paid F.B.I. operative” who’d been assigned to infiltrate AIM. Adding to the conspiracy theory was a hasty initial autopsy that somehow missed the bullet in Aquash’s head.
“The great obstacle with Anna Mae all along has been the disconnect of trust from the witnesses we needed,” says Rod Oswald, who became one of the case’s lead prosecutors. “It’s something they’ve passed down to their kids, almost like a legend: The F.B.I. killed her and covered it up, and therefore there was no way the federal government could bring justice to the Native American people.” Investigators needed a collaborator who could, like Nichols, approach AIM members up and down the chain of command.
Once, I prayed at sun dance: ‘‘Show me who did this to her.’’ Anna Mae came to me in a dream and said, ‘‘Leave me alone, Margo.’’ ’
Nichols was still incarcerated on Dec. 30, 1975, when she gave birth to a daughter, her second with Banks. They named her Tiopa Maza Win, or Iron Door Woman. Soon after, she was released and reunited with Banks, who had been found and arrested but was out on bail. California’s governor, Jerry Brown, granted him asylum, and the family settled in Davis.
“We tried to live as normal as possible,” Nichols said. She took classes at U.C. Davis. Banks became a chancellor at D-Q University, an Indian college, and a guest lecturer at Stanford. Their respite lasted until 1983, when George Deukmejian, elected to succeed Brown as governor, vowed to force Banks from the state. About an hour after Deukmejian was sworn in, Banks’s house was surrounded by the police. But he and his family were already gone, en route to the Onondaga Reservation in upstate New York. “The cops couldn’t arrest Dennis as long as he stayed on Indian land,” Nichols said. “He got a job at the smoke shop on the Interstate. The next year, he said he was tired of running. He finally turned himself in and spent a year in prison.”
In 1989, Nichols told Banks she was fed up with his womanizing and left him. She moved to Santa Fe and left AIM behind, until one day in 1999, when she received a newspaper clipping about the Aquash case in the mail from her mother. Some AIM members were claiming that one of several factions in the organization was responsible. “It started to make sense,” Nichols said. She began asking friends from Pine Ridge what they knew and learned that “for years, everybody had been hearing the stories,” she said.
The contours of the plot were the same in every version: Aquash left the federal courthouse in Pierre on Nov. 24, 1975, when she made bail and was released from jail. She didn’t show up for a court hearing the next day. According to friends, Aquash was desperate to see Banks and made her way to Denver, where she thought she would meet him.
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She stayed at the home of Troy Lynn Yellow Wood, a sister-in-arms whose apartment functioned as a safe house for AIM members. “A lot of people used to come to my house, and probably some of them may have been wanted by the law, too,” Yellow Wood told me. “It wasn’t unusual.” Aquash slept there for more than a week, but Banks never showed up. She passed the time writing letters to her sister and looking after her host’s children.
One night in early December, a car pulled up to the safe house — then another, and then two more, until there were as many as a dozen visitors in the ground-floor apartment. Aquash left with three people in a red Pinto and was never heard from again.
Nichols was struck by the number of people Aquash apparently encountered in the hours before her disappearance. “They were mostly women, and people I knew well,” she told me. She decided to go to the F.B.I.
Before one meeting, she requested that Robert Ecoffey, who worked on Pine Ridge for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and had been the first Indian to be named a federal marshal, also be present. “Basically, I needed the emotional support,” she said. Although Nichols hadn’t spoken to Ecoffey since grade school, she knew he was working on the Aquash case. “We were on different sides of the fence always, but I trusted him,” she said. “He used to throw paper airplanes at me that said, ‘I love you.’ ” When Ecoffey saw that the witness who had asked for him was Nichols, she said, “he almost fell out of his chair.” Years later, she married him.
The F.B.I. asked Nichols if she would wear a wire, and she agreed. She was given the code name Maverick, and over the next year she interviewed about 10 witnesses and surreptitiously recorded several dozen hours of discussion about Aquash’s final days.
Most of the people she spoke with made for ambivalent witnesses, reluctant to cooperate with the government even if it meant solving the murder of one of their own. “I don’t hate Ka-Mook for wanting to know the answers,” Yellow Wood said, “but she should have come to us privately. Basically, we were left with a choice: You were either a co-conspirator or a traitor.”
Still, Yellow Wood was, in retrospect, mortified that she had watched idly as Aquash was led to her death. She says that she picked up her phone to call the police before Aquash left with her captors, but that another woman hung it up while she was on hold, and she let the matter go.
Eventually, Nichols broke the case open with a three-hour recording of Arlo Looking Cloud, a low-level AIM associate who had admitted to friends that he was involved. She picked him up from a Denver jail and in her car began asking him about the night of Aquash’s disappearance. “Arlo was very emotional when I would ask him certain questions,” Nichols later testified. “There were times when he became choked up.” She urged him to cooperate with the authorities, and eventually he confessed and took the stand against John Graham, another AIM member, naming him as the gunman. “It was getting kind of blue out,” Looking Cloud testified, recounting how they marched Aquash at dawn into grassland off South Dakota Highway 73 and put a pistol to her head. “She started praying. It was so quick.” The men were tried separately for the murder, Looking Cloud in 2004 and Graham in 2010. Both were convicted.
The case was far from solved, however. Prosecutors never believed that Looking Cloud and Graham acted alone. Both were minimally involved in the movement and didn’t even know Aquash. “We do feel pretty certain word came to them from high up in the organization,” says Oswald, the prosecutor. Several witnesses, including Looking Cloud, described a third abductor, Theda Nelson Clark, who drove them, along with Aquash, from Denver to the scene of the shooting in her red Pinto.
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Clark, who was 50 in 1975, was a matriarch in AIM, revered but hardly beloved. “Aunt Theda was mean, bossy and obnoxious,” Yellow Wood, her niece, told me. Aquash was brought out with her hands tied. Looking Cloud said Clark handed Graham the gun.
But she was never charged. “I thought it was a slam dunk,” Oswald says, but other prosecutors were hesitant to try a woman who was in failing health and living in a nursing home. Clark died in October 2011 at 87.
And even Clark appeared to have acted at the behest of someone else. Another woman, a former girlfriend of Banks, admitted in court that she told Clark to ferry Aquash to South Dakota to be “dealt with” — instructions that she in turn was relaying from Thelma Rios, an AIM activist in Rapid City. While the government managed to extract a guilty plea from Rios for kidnapping — her five-year sentence was commuted, and she died of lung cancer in 2011 — she said she was passing down the order from yet two other women. She also acknowledged hearing two people say of Aquash: “The bitch should be offed.” The two names were redacted from Rios’s plea agreement but are widely believed to be those of Madonna Thunder Hawk and Lorelei DeCora. They, along with Rios and several other women, made up the Pie Patrol.
‘They’re never going to solve this. When they called me, I just told them, ‘‘I do not talk to the feds.’’ . . . You can’t reason with a thug.
The events Rios described before a judge sounded like a game of telephone, with several layers of women employed to insulate the others while carrying out the hit. They all had close ties to AIM’s leaders: Rios was married to one of Banks’s deputies and bodyguards; Thunder Hawk and Russell Means were cousins; DeCora was Means’s sister-in-law. (Means died in 2012.) Prosecutors zeroed in on the Pie Patrol and learned that the three women held an “interrogation” of Aquash at a house in Rapid City in the hours before she was killed. Candy Hamilton, who was upstairs in the house at the time, told me, “I’d had an argument with Thelma and Lorelei earlier, because they felt Annie Mae was a snitch.”
But there was not enough evidence to charge Thunder Hawk or DeCora or compel them to cooperate, Oswald says. “And we still consider it extremely unlikely that anybody could pull off the murder of Dennis Banks’s girlfriend without the blessing of one of the men in charge.”
Prosecutors were willing to offer Thunder Hawk and DeCora immunity in exchange for testimony and corroborating evidence that implicated someone in charge. Both refused to discuss the case with investigators.
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THUNDER HAWK, WHO HELPED ORGANIZE AIM’S OCCUPATION OF THE BUREAU OF INDIAN AFFAIRS IN 1972, IS STILL A PROMINENT INDIAN ACTIVIST. SHE SERVES AS THE TRIBAL LIAISON TO THE LAKOTA PEOPLE’S LAW PROJECT AND IS REPRESENTED BY THE SAME SPEAKERS’ BUREAU AS ANGELA DAVIS AND NOAM CHOMSKY. WHEN I REACHED HER AT HER HOME ON THE CHEYENNE RIVER RESERVATION IN SOUTH DAKOTA, SHE DENIED HAVING PLAYED A ROLE IN AQUASH’S ABDUCTION OR DEATH. “BALONEY,” SHE SAID. “I NEVER EVEN TRIED TO MAKE SENSE OF WHAT HAPPENED TO ANNA MAE. THEY’RE NEVER GOING TO SOLVE THIS. WHEN THEY CALLED ME, I JUST TOLD THEM, ‘I DO NOT TALK TO THE FEDS.’ CLICK. I HUNG UP. YOU CAN’T REASON WITH A THUG. THEY’RE NOT PEOPLE.”
Through her lawyer, DeCora also denied any involvement in Aquash’s murder.
Thunder Hawk went on to tell me that her only direct interaction with Aquash came at AIM’s legal-defense house in Rapid City. “People were concerned because she was bragging about how she went down to the F.B.I. office to tell them off,” Thunder Hawk said. “I didn’t see it as a big threat, but it had to be handled, her going back and forth like that. Because what if they tried to pin something on her? So I talked to her. And before I could even finish, she said, ‘I go where I want, and I have nothing to hide.’ ”
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She added: “There were hundreds of Anna Maes, just throwing themselves at the men. And every time Dennis and these guys got a different woman, the girls would think they were first lady.”
In the spring of 2011, there was a break in the case, but it came from a different unsolved murder on Pine Ridge. The victim was Ray Robinson, a black civil rights volunteer from Alabama who disappeared in April 1973, not long after getting involved with AIM at Wounded Knee. His wife, Cheryl Buswell, told me from her home in Detroit that he called her when he got to South Dakota and said he planned to backpack into the village at night to avoid checkpoints, so the authorities would have no record of him. “I filed a missing-persons report but never heard from the F.B.I. Nobody from AIM has ever responded to my questions. It’s been festering, festering, festering.”
Oswald came across Robinson’s name while looking at the transcripts of an interview Nichols did with Banks in 2001. She had shown up at Banks’s house in Minnesota, saying she was there to see their daughter Tiopa and then luring him into a series of long reminiscences. At the time, investigators considered the interview a bust, because Nichols was so nervous and barely asked about Aquash. But Banks did discuss Robinson. He told Nichols that Robinson was shot by another AIM officer. He said he saw the corpse shortly afterward and puzzled over what do. Finally, Banks said, he instructed an underling to “bury him where no one will know.” He added that the underling was “gone for about five hours” and that Robinson had been buried “over by the creek.”
“I was floored,” Oswald says. “Banks is not only aware of Robinson’s killing, but where he was buried, and he acknowledges his own role in where to bury the body.” It also lent credibility to the theory that AIM’s leadership wasn’t averse to frontier justice.
Oswald located a witness, Richard Two Elk, who was in a bunker where, he said, Robinson provoked an altercation with AIM’s security team, brandishing a knife and promptly getting himself shot in the kneecap. To prosecutors hoping to solve the Robinson case itself, the story came with a host of impediments: Two Elk said he didn’t see who the gunman was, and the episode sounded more like an accidental killing than a shooting with intent to kill (and because the act occurred on federal land, the statute of limitations had expired for any charge short of first-degree murder). But when it dawned on Oswald that the reservation’s clinic was staffed by Madonna Thunder Hawk and Lorelei DeCora, he became hopeful about using this crime to force testimony in Aquash’s murder. He dug up another of Nichols’s transcripts, this one with Thunder Hawk, and found that she acknowledged seeing Robinson’s body at the clinic, where she said he bled to death because he had not been brought in right away.
“That didn’t prove intent to kill either, but the fact that these are the same women we’re pursuing in the Aquash case — I’ve successfully tried crimes in the past with much less evidence,” Oswald says. If he could squeeze the Pie Patrol on the matter of Robinson’s death, he reasoned, the women might now give up somebody above them on Aquash’s murder in exchange for immunity. “Because if we could flip a witness in each case, then I’m there,” he says. “We could solve the two cases off of each other.” Oswald also hoped to collect enough evidence, eventually, to approach Banks: “I’d say: ‘Look, Dennis, we know you didn’t kill Ray Robinson. I don’t care for the moment if you ordered the hit on Anna Mae. Just tell us where he is.’ And it would be a house of cards.”
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Despite his optimism, Oswald was instructed at the end of 2011 to shelve the case. His supervisor, Brendan Johnson, the United States attorney for South Dakota, had apparently determined that the odds of successfully completing the investigation were low and closed it, pending new information. Oswald, who left his prosecutor’s job in 2012, feels that he was “this close to solving it” and told me that he hadn’t given up.
But most everyone else has. Richard Two Elk called it “idiot fuel” to think that the murders of Aquash and Robinson might someday be resolved. “I don’t know if you can ever retire from these cases, but they’re not going to change anything,” he told me. I couldn’t help thinking that he meant changing things in the larger sense. Pine Ridge is one of the poorest Indian reservations in the country, with a per capita income of about $4,000 and an unemployment rate of 80 to 90 percent. Then Two Elk got on the subject of his own family: a child addicted to drugs; a sister killed in a car crash (for which he blamed AIM); a daughter and a niece molested by his brother, who went to prison. Each story was sadder than the last.
“It’s just something that I had to eat,” he said, shaking his head. “And so my point is, I told Rod Oswald that Anna Mae’s daughters — maybe they can simply be thankful for what they’ve been able to achieve, because they found the killers, or some of them. That’s a lot more than what 99 percent of us get. When you hear about Ray Robinson, lots of Indians might have something just as bad. And so you think, Is it really fair he’s getting all the devotion?”
Aquash’s daughters are not at all satisfied with that. “The people who had my mother killed are still out there, calling themselves defenders of Indian rights and saying her death was a tragedy,” Denise Maloney, her older daughter, told me. She was 11 and her sister 9 the last time they saw their mother. “But I remember her gait, how her hip flicked when she walked. She smelled like Kool menthols.”
Dennis Banks lives at the end of a long reservation road on the shore of Leech Lake, Minn., in an A-frame house not far from his childhood home. In his driveway sits a dismantled tour bus painted with his name and a giant headdress. One morning in October, I found him in the living room, in fleece pants and rafting shoes. He was drinking tea. He was 76, barrel-chested and slim, and his hair was held in a ponytail by a fuzzy elastic band.
He put tobacco in a three-foot pipe, slowly took several puffs and then handed it to me. “It tends to put visitors at ease,” he said. He began talking about the business he runs with one of his sons — he has 20 children with seven women, and 89 grandchildren — tapping maple trees and harvesting wild rice. “These were trades I learned when I was 4 years old,” he said.
Accusations that he was involved in Aquash’s murder have swirled for years, Banks acknowledged. He has always denied them. “I only know what I read in the paper.” He said he was happy for the opportunity to think about her.
“We were in love,” he said. On the other hand, “Ka-Mook was very strong, and she was brave enough to come with me, but — —”
“My mom chose her own path to travel,” said their daughter Tiopa, who was changing the diaper on her 4-month-old. “She has to live with that.”
“When I found out what Ka-Mook did, I felt very alone,” Banks said. “Not so much anger, but ‘Is Dennis Banks the big Cracker Jack prize?’ ”
He talked about informers. “There was a lot going on that made the paranoia believable,” he said. “It became impossible to trust anybody.”
Even so, I asked, would he have advocated killing someone who he knew for certain was a traitor to AIM? (There has never been any evidence that Aquash was an F.B.I. informer.)
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“I don’t know if I would participate in some sort of getting-rid-of-the-person,” he said. “But I would say, ‘Take care of this.’ Or, ‘Take the guy out, and I don’t want to see him again.’ ”
I brought up the Ray Robinson disappearance. Banks stared at me and said nothing while he opened the screen door. He wanted to show me a sweat lodge he built in his back yard, a low, stone igloo with tarps and blankets for a roof.
“The government asked me about that, and I told them I don’t know anything,” he said finally. “There’s a lot of misinformation.”
He turned toward his house, and we walked back inside. “However these people got put up to putting the bullet in Annie Mae, I already know all I need to,” he said. “The government set the stage for anybody in the movement to think that Annie Mae was a fed when the judge let her out of jail for the last time in Pierre.” He retrieved a fly swatter from the kitchen, began flicking at the air and went on: “There are no secrets and questions left. If there’s a burning house, no one gives an order to put out the fire. Someone just goes and does it. It was people who fell into an idea.”
Eric Konigsberg is a former reporter for The Times and the author of “Blood Relation.” He has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic and New York.
Editor: Sheila Glaser