Aquash, Anna Mae (1945–1976)

views updated

Aquash, Anna Mae (1945–1976)

Native American, Micmac activist. Name variations: Anna Mae Pictou; Annie Mae. Born March 27, 1945, in Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia, Canada; murdered on February 24, 1976, on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota; third daughter of Mary Ellen Pictou and Frances Levi; attended Wheelock College; scholarship to Brandeis University (unused); married Jake Maloney (Micmac), in 1962 (later divorced); marriedNogeeshik Aquash (an Ojibwa artist), 1973, at Pine Ridge; children: (first marriage) two daughters.

Anna Mae Pictou Aquash knew from firsthand experience how poverty could devastate Native tribes. Born on the Micmac reserve in Nova Scotia, Aquash became a determined and dedicated worker on behalf of Indian rights at an early age. She attended school in Nova Scotia and, at 17, married tribal member Jake Maloney. They had two daughters before divorcing.

In the early 1960s, Aquash moved to Boston where she became active on the Boston Indian Council, a group established to aid Native American alcoholics. She also was employed as a social worker in the predominately black area of Boston called Roxbury. It was during her early years as an activist that she developed her vision for "A People's History of the Land," an assemblage of the cultural history of Indian people from the Indian point of view.

Aquash's dream was not to be. In 1970, her life took a decided turn when she met Russell Means, a charismatic, outspoken organizer for the American Indian Movement (AIM). Formed in 1968, the organization sought to address problems of Native Americans and to rekindle a sense of tribal identity both in urban Indian centers and on the reservations. Unfortunately, the conservative administration of Richard Nixon took a dim view of AIM and put the group under FBI surveillance.

From 1970 until her murder in 1976, Aquash was a tireless organizer. She crisscrossed the country organizing on behalf of AIM and participating in demonstrations like the Mayflower II Thanksgiving Day protest and the Trail of Broken Treaties, which was staged in 1972. The following year, Aquash left her "day job" as a factory worker at the General Motors plant in Framingham, Massachusetts, to travel to the Oglala Nation's Pine Ridge Reservation at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. There, she married Ojibwa artist and fellow activist Nogeeshik Aquash, in a traditional ceremony performed by Wallace Black Elk.

In 1975, the strain between the FBI and AIM took a deadly turn. Because more than 60 Indians had been mysteriously killed, tensions on the Pine Ridge Reservation ran high. In a final confrontation, with AIM members believing they were under siege, two FBI agents were killed. Because Aquash was among the activists in residence at the time, federal authorities grilled her about the killings. Though later released, she told close friends that she believed herself to be a target. Five months later, Aquash disappeared.

On February 24, 1976, the body of an unidentified female was discovered in a ditch on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Authorities, who originally identified the body, dismissed the case as "routine," claiming the woman had died of "exposure" probably due to alcohol abuse. A second autopsy, however, not only identified the woman as Anna Mae Aquash, but the report also revealed that she had been raped and shot in the head, execution style, with a .38 caliber pistol. Though an investigation was ordered and a grand jury convened to look into links between the FBI and the events surrounding the Aquash murder, the results were never released. The case of Anna Mae Aquash remains unsolved.


Brand, Johanna. The Life and Death of Anna Mae Aquash. Toronto: James Lorimer, 1978.

Matthiessen, Peter. In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. NY: Viking Press, 1983 (revised and updated, Penguin Press, 1992).

Weir, David, and Lowell Bergman. "The Killing of Anna Mae Aquash," in Rolling Stone. April 7, 1977, pp. 51–55.

Deborah Jones , freelance writer, Studio City, California