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?
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.
One morning this March, almost a year to the day after his arrest, Arlo Looking Cloud walks into a closet-size visitors' room in South Dakota's Pennington County jail. Three weeks earlier, a jury in the nearby federal courthouse had found him guilty of the first-degree murder of Anna Mae Aquash. A few weeks from today he will hear he's to serve the maximum sentence of life in prison.
Wearing an inmate jumpsuit and carrying a folder jammed with papers, he sits on a stool bolted to the ground. He is 51, thin and wiry like an aged sprinter. His brown skin is smooth, and disheveled eyeglasses perched on his prominent cheekbones give him a geeky, boyish quality. On the other side of the thick window between us, he tucks his shoulder-length black hair behind his ears and smiles one of those now-what? smiles. This is the first time he has spoken on the record with a journalist.
Looking Cloud tells me he was present on that night in December 1975 when Aquash, with her hands tied, was marched from a Denver house and put into the back of a red Ford Pinto. He says he drove that Pinto to the Badlands and was within feet of her when she was shot, while she knelt and prayed for her two young daughters. However, he insists, two other people, American Indian Movement members, also were there every step of the way and barking orders. He says one of them was the killer. And he swears he had no idea Aquash would be killed until the trigger was pulled. He describes the person he was then as a drunken 22-year-old following the commands of AIM foot soldiers, a group he viewed with both admiration and fear.
This much of what Looking Cloud says is nothing new. On the day Alonzo arrested him, he gave authorities a similar account in a videotaped statement. And that tape was played for the jury at his trial last February. As our conversation continues, however, Looking Cloud mentions something that was never openly discussed in the courtroom or otherwise made part of the public record. He says he gave a virtually identical statement to law enforcement officials nine years earlier. What's more, he tells me that before he gave that 1994 statement U.S. attorneys gave him a deal. He didn't ask for it, he says, they offered. According to Looking Cloud, in return for his account of the murder and for future cooperation with any trials the investigation might produce, prosecutors agreed not to use anything he said against him; then, at his trial in South Dakota, government attorneys broke that agreement by using his videotaped words to pin the murder on him.
Looking Cloud's jailhouse story, of course, could be nothing more than a self-serving con. After all, the Denver streets are filled with Native Americans pitching seemingly unbelievable hard-luck tales. Why believe a vagabond alcoholic convicted of murder? What reason is there to think the United States government would break a promise made to an Indian and call it justice? Actually, there are reasons.
As I get up to leave, Looking Cloud says he's going to send me something.
"What?" I ask.
"A copy of my deal with the feds."
Anna Mae Aquash's daughter Denise remembers the last time she saw her mom. It was a weekend, September 1974. Denise was 11 and her sister, Debbie, was 9. That Friday, before the girls went to school, Jake Maloney, their father and Aquash's first husband, informed them they would meet their mother later that day at a nearby relative's in Nova Scotia. He instructed them to tell no one about the visit. Aquash was then a prominent AIM activist and a fugitive in the United States.
Maloney tried to hide that part of his ex-wife's life from the girls, so they wouldn't worry or be put in harm's way. Aquash, though, had already revealed her risky AIM business to Denise. "She didn't believe in lying," says Denise, now 38 years old and living in Nova Scotia. "And she told me things because I was the big sister." When Denise was 9, Aquash showed her a steamer trunk full of guns and ammunition. "She said they were taking them to this place where people were trying to hurt people, and they were taking the [guns] in so people could defend themselves," Denise says. "She was on her way to Wounded Knee."
Aquash always exuded a calm confidence in front of her daughters, except for that last time together. At the end of a weekend filled with joyous chatter and adult whispers, Aquash pulled her girls aside. "She got down on her knees," Denise says. "She had tears in her eyes as she said goodbye. We kept asking when she was going to come and get us. And she looked at me and told me that because I was the elder that it was my responsibility to look after my sister."
Seven months later, Maloney called his daughters in from playing. "They found a body," he told them. "We don't have all the information in yet, but we think it's her." Maloney didn't mention that the first medical examiner had determined Aquash died of "exposure," and that it was only after her family demanded a second autopsy that another pathologist noted the obvious bullet hole in her head. Maloney didn't bring up the rumors spreading through Indian Country: Some people were saying the first autopsy was an FBI attempted cover-up, that Aquash had been killed by corrupt federal agents. Other people whispered that AIM leaders got rid of Aquash because she was an informant. Instead, Maloney broke the news to the girls in the most general terms. He figured it was the gentlest way. Besides, truth be told, he didn't fully understand the perilous life his ex-wife had been leading. He only knew the Anna Mae he'd married.
She was Anna Mae Pictou, a Micmac Indian, a daughter of migrant workers, raised on the tribe's impoverished reservation in Nova Scotia. She and Maloney, also a full-blood Micmac, met at the Indian Day School, and before graduating the teenage couple moved to Boston to escape the impoverished life on the "rez." They married, moved into a small apartment, and the girls were born.
They found decent jobs in the big city - Maloney became a laborer, Aquash worked as a factory packer and a barmaid - but they also confronted a harsh reality in 1960s Boston: Like African-Americans, Native Americans were treated as second-class citizens. At her barmaid job Aquash watched Indian men try to drown their depression with booze. She met a Micmac chief who became her mentor; he taught her that the Micmacs were the first native people to encounter the "European white invaders" and that Micmac had trusted the whites until the British governor offered a bounty for every Indian "savage" scalp.
Aquash channeled her festering rage into action. Change and volatility were in the air. Against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, the peaceful civil-rights movement of Martin Luther King Jr. morphed into the black-power of the Black Panthers, and Native Americans imitated their African-American peers by establishing urban activist groups like Boston's Indian Council. Aquash joined the council, where she encouraged her people to be proud of their heritage, and she helped establish an Indian recreation center.
In November 1971, the Indian Council invited a group calling itself the American Indian Movement to town. On Thanksgiving Day, AIM leaders orchestrated a rally at Boston Harbor. Activists climbed aboard a replica of the Mayflower, hung an AIM banner, and declared Thanksgiving a national day of mourning. It was a turning point for Aquash, who was in the crowd with her two daughters. It seemed to her that this group was destined to do more than just build rec centers; they were out to rebuild an Indian nation.
The Mayflower rally also was a pivotal moment for Aquash's marriage. Although Maloney was all for Indian rights, he felt his and his wife's foremost duty was to focus on their family. Aquash, however, was now convinced she owed it to her girls to fight for Indian equality. Her commitment to the cause drove a wedge between the couple. They separated, and Aquash began a new life. As she wrote to her sister in Nova Scotia: "These white people here in the United States, they think this country belongs to them. But they're only in charge right now because there are more of them than there are of us. This whole country changed with only a handful of raggedy-ass pilgrims that came over in the 1500s, and it can take a handful of raggedy-ass Indians to do the same, and I intend to become one of those raggedy-ass Indians."
An AIM leader who profoundly affected Aquash at that Mayflower rally was Russell Means, one of the organization's best known and most controversial organizers. Today, Means lives in South Dakota and sits on the Elders' Council of AIM's still-active Denver chapter. "AIM was created because we were pushed to the brink of genocide," he says. "Our people and our culture were about to be obliterated." His inflammatory rhetoric is buttressed by historical fact. Columbus' discovery triggered the New World's colonization, influx of Christian missionaries, Manifest Destiny, and a United States. By 1820, the indigenous people now dubbed Indians had been chased into the western two-thirds of the country.
In 1868, Native Americans made a seminal stand. Defeating American forces, the tribes won control of a huge swath of the country between the Black Hills and Wyoming's Big Horn Mountain, including the Lakota "holy lands" of the Dakotas. Congress ratified this settlement in the form of the Fort Laramie treaty, which stated that the lands were for the "absolute and undisturbed use and occupation" of Indians. Four years later, a Jesuit missionary spread word of gold in the Black Hills, and the United States once again attacked the Indians, this time at Little Big Horn. In response to Gen. George Custer's overwhelming defeat, the U.S. government cut off rations to the reservations until the Native Americans signed a treaty that would "legally" relinquish title to the territories.
From then on, native people would be forced onto a succession of smaller reservations, relocated each time the government wanted something (railroad passage, water, oil, coal, and, more recently, uranium) from the land. And even the rez was controlled by "the Great Council in Washington." Under supervision of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in D.C., reservations became corrupt, depressed fiefdoms. Meanwhile, missionaries set up schools to "save" Indian children from their "pagan" culture.
They recruited a young Lakota with a genius for public relations named Russell Means. Under his direction, AIM focused on the heart of the matter: U.S.-Indian treaties. The organization established its headquarters in the heart of Indian holy land South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation; and it became unmistakably more aggressive. In 1970, Means led dozens of AIM supporters to the top of Mt. Rushmore. Before authorities dragged the protesters from the mountain, Means urinated down George Washington's face and proclaimed that the mountains belonged to Indians, as stated in the Fort Laramie Treaty.
In 1972, Means organized the protest that put AIM on the map and drew Aquash into her first battle for the cause. Busloads of Indians from around the country convened in Washington, D.C., at the Bureau of Indian Affairs building for a rally intended to peacefully draw attention to "The Trail of Broken Treaties." Timed to coincide with the presidential election, AIM leaders planned to present demands to the Nixon administration. Among them: the return of 110 million acres the United States obtained by allegedly violating treaties, and the abolition of the BIA. Aquash, holding her daughters' hands, arrived with the Boston contingent.
Outside the BIA office, tensions flared. Police riot squads scuffled with protestors. Fearing tear gas would be launched, Aquash handed wet towels to her girls, telling them to cover their mouths if they saw police put on masks. Thousands of AIM members stormed the BIA building, trashing offices and stealing documents. By the time government officials talked AIM out of the building, promising that no criminal charges would be filed, so much damage had been done that the BIA couldn't open for six weeks. A congressional investigation concluded that the AIM takeover of the BIA building was "the most severe damage inflicted upon Washington, D.C., since the British burned the city in the War of 1812."
A 19-year-old Arlo Looking Cloud boarded one of the Broken Treaty buses that departed from Denver, but he never made it to Washington, D.C.
Looking Cloud's Lakota name is Mahkpiyawakipa. It was given to him when he was in his early 40s, by his father. According to Looking Cloud, it means "Stands Alone." A more fitting name might have been, "Stands No Chance."
His parents, John and Victoria, both full-blood Lakota, moved to Denver from South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1940s. Because of its proximity to Pine Ridge, Denver was where many Lakota went looking for a better life than the one on the rez. (It was one of the most popular of the city options afforded under the 1948 Relocation Act.) Whatever aspirations the couple had when they arrived were quickly ravaged by alcoholism. According to John's sister, Martha Featherman, because of booze John and Victoria were unable to hold down jobs or to deal with their first-born son, Arlo. Six months after he was born, Looking Cloud's mother disappeared from Denver with him. Weeks later, Featherman got a call from someone living in Allen, S.D., saying baby Looking Cloud was there. Featherman and her mother retrieved the infant and, at John Looking Cloud's request, raised the child. Now a 79-year-old widow, Featherman still lives in the Northeast Denver neighborhood where she cared for her nephew.
Because of her deep Catholic faith, Featherman sent Looking Cloud to the Holy Rosary School back at Pine Ridge when he turned 8. According to many firsthand student accounts that would emerge years later, sexual and physical abuse were common in the missionary schools. Of his time at Holy Rosary, Looking Cloud says only that he saw "things that weren't right" and that he ran away whenever he got the chance. "Every time they caught me," he says, "my head was shaved bald and I was whipped."
Barely into his teens, Looking Cloud started boozing. The more wasted he got, the less he felt. No mom, no dad, no culture - no worries. When he was sloshed, none of that mattered. An infatuation with drawing led him to the Indian Institute of the Arts in Santa Fe, a high school where he hooked up with what he describes as a "bad crowd" and got expelled. Featherman welcomed him back to Denver. He enrolled in Aurora Central High but spent more time attending the bars frequented by Indians along East Colfax than he did in class.
In one of the taverns he met Troy Lynn Yellow Wood, a woman who was one of many AIM operatives in Denver. She worked in the AIM office on Colfax near Emerson. Opened in 1969, it was headed by founding leader Clyde Bellecourt's brother Vernon. Yellow Wood and Looking Cloud quickly became friends. Not because of anything political, they both just partied with the same crowd. In 1972, Yellow Wood convinced Looking Cloud he ought to hop on the Trail of Broken Treaties bus.
Looking Cloud socialized with many AIM members, but he was never a member of the organization, according to Russell Means. "He never attended meetings," Means says. "He just hung around." Looking Cloud hung around because, as far as he was concerned, the more Indians the merrier. To him, the bus ride Yellow Wood described sounded like a good time. When Looking Cloud's bus stopped at a Minnesota reservation to pick up more supporters, he got off and stayed to party with friends.
During the early '70s, in one of those bars on Colfax, Looking Cloud met a girl from Pine Ridge, a Lakota named Charlotte Zephier. The couple had a little boy. Determined to a make a better father than the one he had, Looking Cloud moved his family into an apartment not far from his aunt and got a job as a hospital orderly. He cut back on the drinking. For about five years he did his best to be a family man. Despite everything, it looked like he was on the right path. Then, one night in December 1975, while his wife and son were in Nebraska visiting family, Looking Cloud went to Troy Lynn Yellow Wood's house on the 4400 block of Pecos Street. As he later told government agents, he was looking for a pal who often crashed there. Looking Cloud was hoping the two would go out and grab a few drinks. When he arrived at Yellow Wood's, he saw a handful of AIM members in the house. They were discussing what to do with a woman who was locked in a back bedroom. A red Pinto was parked out front.