Broken Treaties

Government officials promised Arlo Looking Cloud a deal if he'd help them solve one of the most notorious murders in Native American history. So what's he doing in prison?

October 2004

Denver Detective Abe Alonzo was pretty sure he was about to make a historic bust.

Just to be certain, he drove his unmarked car by the guy strolling along the seedy stretch of neon-lit stores on East Colfax Avenue, swung a U-turn through the morning's rush-hour traffic, and passed him again for another look. On the seat next to the detective was a warrant for the arrest of Arlo Looking Cloud, charged with killing Anna Mae Aquash, one of the most prominent Indian civil-rights activists of the 20th century.

Throughout the early 1970s, Aquash was a senior member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), the Native American equivalent of the Black Panthers. She was there in 1972 with thousands of AIM supporters as they ransacked the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C. She was also on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1973 for the infamous siege at Wounded Knee. Inside that makeshift AIM compound, while it was surrounded by heavily armed federal agents and commandos, 28-year-old Aquash was ready for a fight to the death if it meant the United States government would honor the many treaties it had signed with her native people. Two years later, her body was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, curled in the fetal position with a bullet hole in her head.

On his second pass Detective Alonzo definitely recognized the brown-skinned man with long, black hair as Looking Cloud. It was March 27, 2003, what would have been Aquash's 58th birthday. By then, her murder had gone unsolved for 27 years, despite at least three grand jury proceedings and a heated congressional probe. Conspiracy theories had spilled from Indian Country, implicating everyone from AIM leaders to the FBI. Almost every major media outlet in the country had covered the politically sensitive mystery. Books had been written. A documentary had been made. Many Native Americans, including some of Colorado's 51,000 Indian residents, considered the Aquash "execution" as significant and suspicious as the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.

The detective parked his car at the corner of Colfax and Williams Street and approached the suspect. Actually, like many cops on the force, he already knew the man well. Looking Cloud was one of Denver's homeless, and he'd been arrested dozens of times, usually for petty crimes committed while drunk or high. "Alonzo, it's me. Arlo," Looking Cloud said when the detective went through the formality of requesting identification.

At about 8:30 a.m., Looking Cloud, already intoxicated and likely stoned, submitted to cuffing without resistance. He assumed he was being collared for missing a court appearance on a recent misdemeanor charge. He figured he'd be back on the streets in no time, getting wasted with his tribe of destitute Indians. When Alonzo informed Looking Cloud he was under arrest for the Aquash homicide, he was stunned. The full-blood Lakota Indian, a great-great grandson of Chief American Horse, thought he'd put that Anna Mae thing behind him years ago.