Anna Mae Aquash, one of the most prominent female members of the American Indian Movement during the 1970s, was found frozen on the side of the road in the Badlands of South Dakota in February 1976. An autopsy determined she died of exposure seven to 10 days before she was found.
After family friends asked to exhume her body, a second autopsy revealed a .32-caliber bullet in the back of her head.
The 30-year mystery — some would describe it as a scandal — is a key aspect of the controversial relationship between the FBI and American Indian activists examined in Steve Hendricks’ first book, “The Unquiet Grave: The FBI and the Struggle for the Soul of Indian Country.”
“I really wanted to write about some repressed social injustice and there was no greater injustice that I discovered than that of the Indian movement and the mystery surrounding the murder of Anna Mae Aquash,” Hendricks said.
Aquash traveled to South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation in 1973 to join the American Indian Movement in a standoff with FBI agents at Wounded Knee.
Hendricks, an investigative journalist, fought for years to obtain thousands of never-before-released FBI documents that he used as a foundation for his book about the struggle between the FBI and American Indians during the 1970s.
“It’s difficult and expensive to sue, and the FBI knows this and uses that to their advantage,” Hendricks said. “This is one of the most prominent reasons why this side of the story has never been told before.”
Though Hendricks is still in court attempting to get access to more government records, he said he felt the information he did receive was enough to write a book.
“All these small things add up to bigger circumstances in these documents; like an incident with an Indian activist who was assassinated by the government for his political beliefs, and the FBI covered up the actual events, claiming he was shot in self-defense because he was waving a gun around,” Hendricks said. “These documents reveal that this is a false tale of what actually happened, and there are dozens of these circumstances in the documents.”
“The Unquiet Grave,” which was released nationwide Oct. 15, is “an incredible story that works on two different levels,” said Charlie Winton, chairman and CEO of Avalon Publishing Group, which published the book.
It’s been more than 20 years since the last book about the American Indian Movement, “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse” by Peter Matthiessen, was published, Hendricks said.
Hendricks was met with skepticism and abruptness when he first approached the residents of Indian reservations who had witnessed the murder of Aquash, something he said he attributes to preconceived racial prejudice against whites based on their historical treatment of American Indians.
Sharing the injustices suffered by American Indians with readers was the main reason why Beth Elliot, manager of 9th Street Bookstore, said she asked Hendricks to come to Columbia.
“I think readers will find this story interesting,” Elliot said. “It’s about the way I think the government has suppressed Native Americans’ rights, and I think they’ve done a great disservice to them.”