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?
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.