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?
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.