The Not-Quite-Solved Murder of Anna Mae Aquash Is A Conspiracy Pileup

The New York Times Magazine has a new article up about the 1975 killing of Anna Mae Aquash. Two people were convicted of that crime in 2004 and 2010, but Eric Konigsberg's article is entitled "Who Killed Anna Mae?" because it advances the theory that the murder happened on orders from people inside the American Indian Movement, the indigenous civil rights movement of which Aquash was a prominent part.

Aquash's body was found just off the highway on a reservation in South Dakota in early 1976, frozen and curled up on its side. She'd last been seen leaving an AIM "safe house" with three people in a Red Pinto in mid-December 1975. Aquash was staying at the safe house after skipping a hearing on gun charges at a federal court in Pierre. And according to Konigsberg, she was in search of a leader of the American Indian Movement, Dennis Banks, with whom was having an affair.

Aquash was apparently already worried about her fellow activists in the AIM, especially following her relatively hasty release from prison on the gun charges. And ultimately, as Konigsberg tells it, she had reason to be. The two people who were convicted of her murder said they simply picked Aquash up at that safe house and drove her out to the field where they shot her. But Konigsberg suggests, after detailing the investigations of federal authorities and Banks' own ex-wife, that those people were acting at the behest of Banks and/or a small coterie of women inside the movement known as the "Pie Patrol." And then, he says, those people hushed up their involvement.

A lot of this has already been covered by the Indian press, and Konigsberg does not dig up a ton of new evidence, though he gets an uncomfortable encounter with Banks at the end of the piece. (Banks "was happy for the opportunity to think about" Aquash, he said.) But it's fascinating that initial rumors about Aquash's death went in the opposite direction. As Konigsberg tells it,

"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.

There is apparently no evidence to suggest Aquash was any kind of government informant, at any point.

Which leads you to a weird irony involved in counterintelligence strategy. The threat of government surveillance, however vague, makes people paranoid. It gets worse when it turns out, as with Durham, that there is at least some reason to worry. It almost stops mattering what the actual level of infiltration is; the suspicions have an energy of their own.

Couple that with the multidirectional violence that surrounded AIM activities—the most famous being the incident at Wounded Knee, in which Aquash herself participated—and the general distrust the AIM had for the government it was struggling against to begin with, and you get a toxic brew. Aquash's murder was of course nonetheless heinous and the people who committed it, if they remain out there, deserve to be brought to justice.

But it also feels like this murder was the kind of thing that someone, somewhere in the counterintelligence world at the time probably knew was going to happen.

[Photo via AP, of Aquash's sister and daughter holding her picture in 2003.]