For many years, I supported the campaign to free American Indian activist Leonard Peltier, who had been convicted, many said wrongly, of the death of two federal agents in a shoot out on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Even Amnesty International signed on to his case. But after moving to Maine, I learned more about the murder of Annie Mae Pictou Aquash, and I began to have reservations. I stopped my support, but didn’t really know how to speak about it.
Yesterday, via my friend Sherri Mitchell’s Facebook feed, I started to listen to a live feed of the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls that was taking place in Montreal. Denise Pictou Maloney was testifying about the death of her mother Annie Mae. I listened for an hour and a half, and then after she had completed, I went back to hear what I had missed at the beginning of the tape.
Annie Mae was a leader in the American Indian Movement, originally from the Mi’kmaq First Nation at Indian Brook Reserve in Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia. I first learned about Annie Mae in the song by Buffy St. Marie, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”, in which she sang,
My girlfriend Annie Mae talked about uranium
Her head was filled with bullets and her body dumped
The FBI cut off her hands and told us she’d died of exposure
The implication, the narrative, the story so many of us believed for many years, was that she was killed by the FBI. But in fact, the truth later came out that she was killed by other AIM members. In 2004 and 2010, Arlo Looking Cloud and John Graham were convicted of her kidnapping and murder. They also implicated AIM leadership in her death, though no one was ever charged. You can find out a lot more if you listen to the tape of Denise’s testimony, or even if you look up Annie Mae on Wikipedia.
Hearing the pain in Denise’s voice moved me to want to speak publicly this time. It feels risky to do so, because, as a white person who tries to be an ally, a co-conspirator, with Indigenous people, I know that I will always know too little about all of this. I do know that the FBI tried to sow dissension in the ranks of activist movements, especially those of Indigenous people and people of color. This included planting informants within the movements, and also casting suspicion on dedicated activists to cause others to suspect that they might be informants. This is one theory about the motive for killing Annie Mae. Another theory claims she was challenging AIM leaders on their behavior, or that she had heard Leonard brag about killing the agents. I don’t know the answers to that.
But I want to speak today, despite not knowing all the answers, because I have in the past spoken in support of Leonard Peltier. Denise talked about how painful it has been for their family, every time there is more public support for Leonard. So I want to interrupt my own participation in that process, (which most lately has been through my silence), and let my friends and colleagues know that I can no longer support Leonard Peltier’s campaign for release from prison. And I also want to acknowledge how difficult a journey we make when we intend to be allies or co-conspirators. We often make mistakes and get it wrong. But that does not make it less worthwhile to try, to show up for what is right.
What I carry away with me today is sadness and anger. Sadness and anger for the fall of heroes–the leaders we wanted to be better than they were, because the cause they fought for was so important. Sadness and anger for the children and family and friends of Annie Mae, who have waited so long for the world to know the real story, and often feel as if their voices are not welcome because the truth interrupts the stories people want to believe. Sadness and anger that in my ignorance as an outsider, I was drawn in to the narrative, and thus contributed to their sorrow. Sadness and anger at the insidious complexity of colonization and oppression, and the brokenness within all of us left in its wake.