Anna Mae Aquash: Rewriting a Contemporary Legend


Somehow last night, in a binge of Web-surfing, I came across a story about the partial solving of the murder of Anna Mae Aquash.  As an activist, I grew up with the story of Anna Mae, a Mi’kmaq from Nova Scotia who was a mover and shaker in the American Indian Movement (AIM) until her murder in the mid-1970s.  In the 1990s, along with Leonard Peltier, Anna Mae Aquash was a legendary figure in the fight for justice for oppressed and colonised peoples.  As a powerful and charismatic woman, who had quite a bit to say about the secondary position of Indian women in AIM, Anna Mae was also a legendary figure in feminist circles, perhaps particularly in her country of birth, Canada.  When I got started in student activism, it was only 15 years after her death, and her story was still fresh and still blamed on the FBI.

I remember being haunted by folk-singer Faith Nolan’s song about Anna Mae, particularly the wailing line: “Anna Mae, where are your hands?”—When her body was found, some time after her death, Anna Mae’s hands were cut off by investigators in order to send them to a lab to obtain finger prints and identify her body.

Somehow, I missed the court cases in 2006 and 2010 that proved she’d been killed not by “The Man”, as represented by FBI suits, but by her own people, fellow activists in AIM, which by the mid-1970s had imploded with paranoia, infighting and jealousy; that the male leadership, rather than being unambiguously oppressed martyrs, may have been implicated in killing this beautiful, passionate woman.

I grew up in awe of the social movements of the 1960s and early 1970s, the radicalism, the promise of social change.  As a teenager in the conservative 1980s, I often wished I’d been born earlier, in that time when everything was black and white.  Only of course it wasn’t.  It was just as muddy then as now.  It was only in legend that the good guys could be easily distinguished from the bad.

What happens when a legend gets shattered?

Reading the revised story of Anna Mae’s murder left me reeling.  I hadn’t thought of her in years, I’m not a Native American, not even a student activist anymore, but the destruction of her legend left an unexpected impact on me.   She was a touch point in my own personal storyline.  The change in her story could not leave my own story unscathed.  Michael White, writes about “sparkling moments” in narrative therapy, moments uncovered from a person’s history that allow him or her to write a new and better story about themselves and the world around them.  As far as I know, he never wrote about the converse, about the extinguishing of a spark that connects meaning to a life.  I found myself in a fury as I walked to work this morning.  Angry at AIM for turning out to have been made up of fallible, at times thuggish characters, rather than pious martyrs.  Angry at all the people who knew the truth but kept silent for so long in order to keep the useful legend alive.

But this evening, when I reread the New York Times article, I realised that there are heroic stories to be found even in the revised tale.  Not amongst the gun-toting freedom fighters.  It now seems rather inevitable that the guns would eventually turn inwards.  But amongst the people who never gave up on the search for the truth.  Anna Mae’s friend and sometimes rival, Darlene Ka-Mook Nichols who was not afraid to go against the dominant stories of her own people, to risk being seen as a traitor (as indeed she has been by some) in order to find out what really happened.  It’s easy to get carried away by a movement, much more difficult to follow an internal moral compass that is guiding you in a different direction from where everyone else is heading.  And actually none of this changes the story I have of Anna Mae as a passionate and courageous woman, it only changes the story of her death from one of martyrdom to one of tragedy.  I hope the conviction of two of her killers brings some peace to those who knew her.  In the final assessment, her life and death will continue to be a touchstone to me, even if the legend had to be revised.

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I'm a writer, a researcher and a storyteller.

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