Trial to revisit American Indian Movement’s past

By Nomaan Merchant
Sioux Falls, South Dakota (AP) November 2010

The American Indian Movement grabbed headlines and international attention in the early 1970s when the group occupied the South Dakota reservation town of Wounded Knee.

Those days are long past. AIM has since faded from public view, though some of its offshoot groups still operate.

But the upcoming trial of a former AIM member in the late 1975 murder of Annie Mae Aquash – who left her two young daughters to join AIM at Wounded Knee – will likely revisit AIM’s past and the actions of its former leaders.

Prosecutors say AIM leaders ordered Aquash’s death because she was suspected of being a government informant at a time when FBI agents and AIM members routinely exchanged gunfire.

John Graham, a Canadian accused of shooting Aquash, is scheduled to stand trial this week.

In the years since her death, one AIM leader, Russell Means, has blamed another, Vernon Bellecourt, for issuing that order. Bellecourt denied the claim before his death in 2008.

AIM was founded in the late 1960s to protest the U.S. government’s treatment of Indians and demand the government honor its treaties with Indian tribes. It first gained national attention in 1972 when it took over the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington.

The next year, the group occupied Wounded Knee – the site of the 1890 standoff between Lakota Indians and U.S. Army forces in which hundreds of Lakota were killed. AIM controlled Wounded Knee for 71 days from late February to May of 1973 before surrendering to federal agents.

Aquash, a native of the Mi’kmaq tribe of Nova Scotia, took part in Wounded Knee and remained active within the group afterward. But rumors began to circulate that Aquash might be a government informant, particularly as she became more involved within AIM, witnesses have said.

She was killed in late 1975, two years after the Wounded Knee uprising. A rancher found her body in February 1976.

AIM splintered in the 1980s due to infighting between Means and other AIM leaders, according to Northern Arizona University professor Jon Reyhner. Vernon Bellecourt and his brother, Clyde Bellecourt, led one faction, the American Indian Movement Grand Governing Council, and Means led another, the American Indian Movement of Colorado.

The Grand Governing Council did not return a phone message, and Clyde Bellecourt did not respond to questions in a brief phone conversation. A phone number listed on Colorado AIM’s website has been disconnected.

“There still is some activity,” Reyhner said of AIM’s offshoots. “It was sort of an anarchical organization to begin with.”

Means, who later pursued a career as a Hollywood actor, with a role in “The Last of the Mohicans,” among other films, said he’s no longer involved in AIM and that the group has “faded away.”

“We fulfilled what we started out to do,” he said. “That was, create self-determination for Indian people.”

Tim Giago, a Lakota from the Pine Ridge reservation and publisher of the Native Sun News, disagreed that AIM had fulfilled its goals.

“They’re pretty well an afterthought by now,” he said. “(Others) have been there all these years since AIM left the reservation, doing the job AIM was supposed to do.”

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