On February 24, 1976, after being missing and unheard from for months, Ana Mae’s decomposing body was discovered in a desolate area of the Pine Ridge, South Dakota reservation by a rancher. Although two former AIM activists were eventually convicted for killing her in 2004; Arlo Looking Cloud and John Graham, with another former AIM member – Theda Clark – implicated, but never convicted, the story of Ana Mae’s life and death still remains unsolved for many Indigenous people and those of us concerned about justice.
My interest in Ana Mae is one I haven’t truly come to understand until recent years. I was born and raised in the inner city within a solidly African community. I had no knowledge of the struggles of Indigenous peoples, not to mention understanding the land question for them in the Americas or us with Africa, until I entered my late teens and early twenties. When I was 17, having acquired just enough information to become dangerous, I joined forces with a now defunct Black Nationalist/quasi Pan-Africanist formation that taught me solid self-defense skills coated with plenty of patriarchy and Black capitalism posing as liberation theory and practices. After a few years in college working for Pan-African student organizing, by 22, I was a committed member of the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party (A-APRP). For the last 37 years, the A-APRP has been my political home. And, since the A-APRP has an institutional study process that guides our work, it was there that I learned who I am, who my people are, why we are in this position, and as a result of that, who the Indigenous people are. The A-APRP had principled relationships with AIM and other Indigenous groups like El Partido LaRaza Unida which fit nicely with my own political evolution during that time in the early 80s.
By my own evolution, what I mean is although all of the above gave focus to my level of consciousness, my awareness of Ana Mae Aquash came before my formal organizational development. I was 14 years old in 1976. That was the year more than any other that shaped the direction for the rest of my life. It was that year that I was subjected to brutal racist terror aimed against me by adult Europeans that was so barbaric it still amazes me that I’m still here to talk about it all. It was also that year that I recall reading a small article about this Mikmac woman Indigenous activist who’s body was found in South Dakota. I didn’t have a clue then why, but for some reason, this story stuck with me in 1976. I recall that I asked my father about it. He was no student of political history, but he was an African man born and raised in Louisiana, U.S., so without question, he understood institutionalized white supremacy. As a result, his response to me about Ana Mae’s murder was that she was a member of AIM who were “like the Black Panthers for Indians.”
At 14, I had no formal understanding of much of anything except that this society was toxic for me and everyone who looked like me and so in my young mind at that time, anyone like the Panthers who tried to do something to combat that was good. And, to me, if the Indigenous people needed something like AIM, and AIM served a similar purpose for them that the Panthers served for us, that must be a good thing. There were a couple of years there where I was more than completely lost as a result of the constant trauma I was experiencing, but by the time I was turning 17, I had transformed myself into a voracious reader. And, after reading Matthewson’s book when I was 21, my respect for Ana Mae, AIM, and the Indigenous struggle was cemented. I read everything I could get my hands on about Ana Mae Aquash. I learned that she lived in Boston, Mass, U.S., and did community work in the predominantly African Roxbury district and as a child who was completely abandoned by this system’s miseducation system, that truly resonated with me. The idea that someone not even from my experience could see value in someone like me enough to work with our youth. When I realized that due to her outstanding community work, Ana Mae was offered a fully paid scholarship to Brandeis University, which she turned down so that she could do AIM work in South Dakota, she became immortal to me. Still studying, I had to figure out what happened to this magnificent woman.
Fast forward to current times. I’ve lived and learned quite a bit. During one of my many trips to Africa over the years, I had a conversation with an elder in Gambia during a break in some of the political work we were doing there. This person asked me to tell them something about struggle in the U.S. and I thought it appropriate to start with the Indigenous people. I told them about Ana Mae, her contributions, and how I’d always felt like she was a part of me. I trusted this person so I asked them if they thought it strange for an African to feel such a connection to someone else outside of our community who died when I was a child? This wise person responded by telling me that there are ancestors who take an interest in us and do what they can to help guide us forward in life. They told me that since I had a heart for uncompromising struggle for justice, spirits who shared that passion would gravitate towards me. They told me that some of those ancestors knew me. Some didn’t, and it didn’t matter. Some would be African, some could be any nationality and it didn’t matter either way. Then, they told me that based on what I had told them about Ana Mae Aquash, they were convinced that she had chosen me and that I felt her as I did because she’s probably been a part of my life the entire time. That voice in your head that tells you that you should do the right thing? This wise person in Gambia told me that this is the ancestors and that Ana Mae was one of those voices in my head and she would continue to there unless I permanently deviated from my path of seeking justice.
For people opposed to spirituality or for those held captive only to the models forced upon us by colonialism, this interpretation will be hard to accept, but the moment this person explained this to me that way I knew it was true. At that point, my worry was how I could ever maintain being worthy of Ana Mae’s guidance.
What all of this means for me today and moving forward is that I’ve tried to learn what I can from Ana Mae’s life so that my contribution can improve. I know from the struggles of the Panthers, AIM, etc., that the lack of organized political education in those organizations contributed mightily to the dysfunction that led many of the leaders and members within AIM to wrongly conclude that Ana Mae was an informant for police agencies. Anyone who studies this history will discover that the actions of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), in taking undue interest in the death of a poor Indigenous woman, stealing her body, severing her hands, and burying her immediately, while supporting a clearly bogus autopsy, demonstrates the FBI’s role in sabotaging any truth surfacing about what happened to Ana Mae. And, the FBI’s overall sabotage against AIM is well documented by now by anyone who wants to know about it. And, to Indigenous family who, like some of our African family, are so much more concerned about who killed Ana Mae (like we are equally focused on who killed Malcolm X), instead of why she was killed, I say maybe – AIM people pulled the trigger, but the FBI bought the bullets.
I’ve also learned that Ana Mae, like Malcolm, like all of us, had personal struggles. Her personal struggle over not living with her two daughters and other mistakes she made in romance haunted her and this reality really shakes me because my similar mistakes have always tormented me deeply. Since I’ve always been taught to believe I wasn’t good enough, any mistake I’ve made has always been magnified by me and others around me. As a result, the lesson I’ve learned the best about Ana Mae that I’m convinced she has helped me grasp, is that we know who she is because of her outstanding contributions in building organizational capacity in AIM with women, battling patriarchy, and becoming one of the few women in national recognition within that organization due to her enormous contributions. Although the FBI obviously did a great job convincing enough people that Ana Mae was an informant, there is clear and plentiful documentation that when detained by the FBI on multiple occasions, she maintained dignity and courage while refused to tell them anything, despite the FBI being very manipulative and doing a lot to convince people that she cooperated with them.
Its those honored principles that makes Ana Mae special and whatever personal contradictions she had can never supersede her honored behavior when it mattered the most. Her personal mistakes, like mine, are no one else’s business. She, nor I, have abused a single person and as I’ve studied her life, I’ve seen the parallels. Through her life I’ve seen in my own life how much people who pass judgement against you possess themselves values that a rat wouldn’t be impressed with. I know now that much of this is often people working to keep you off balance because your efforts to live a principled life make them uncomfortable because of the pressure it places on them to become better as you are attempting to do. This ghetto raised African needed to learn those lessons because there are many people out here who will work overtime to undermine your value and despite the optics people maintain of me that I’m a strong person who can handle anything, those attacks wear you down over time just as they did Ana Mae.
I can honestly say that I think about Ana Mae countless times monthly and that I’ve done so since I was a teen. Now that I understand why, I embrace it and I continue to view her as a shining light for the work I want to continue to do. And, a major portion of that work is helping people today understand that its hard enough to build movement capacity without us doing things to help the police undermine our work. With the internet, their ability to do so is much easier than it was during Ana Mae’s time. As a result, I’m thankful for Ana Mae Aquash. Her existence in my life exemplifies Marcus Garvey’s statement that we never know how much we do today will impact people later on. Or, as the Lakota women said at Ana Mae’s transition ceremony, “everything comes back twice.” Years ago, when I was doing a presentation on Cointelpro in front of a crowd, when I was talking about Ana Mae, I broke down which made everyone seemingly uncomfortable. It certainly made me feel awkward. Sometimes now when I’m thinking about, or talking about Ana Mae, or Malcolm, or Marilyn Buck, or Kwame Ture or, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, I break down, just as tears are falling down my cheeks as I’m writing this, but now, I experience this with pride. I know now finally that the age old saying is 100% correct that you can destroy the person, but you can never destroy their spirit! I also know that despite the despicable treatment Ana Mae experienced in those final lonely months, and the resulting disrespect her demise generated for many years, that also will never define her legacy. There are too many of us searching for uncompromising truth to permit that to ever happen.