April 15th, 2024

Two daughters, two parents, and echoes of a murder that rocked Indigenous activism

By Darryl Greer, The Canadian Press on March 24, 2024.

In this composite image made from two photographs, Rebecca Julian, left, Anna Mae Pictou Aquash's eldest sister, and Aquash's eldest daughter, Denise Maloney, hold a portrait of Aquash in Shubenacadie, N.S., on June 20, 2003; At right, Naneek Graham holds a photograph of her father John Graham, who is incarcerated in the South Dakota State Penitentiary after being extradited to the U.S. in 2007 and convicted three years later in the 1975 murder of Pictou Aquash, while posing for a portrait at her home in Vancouver, B.C., Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carson Walker, Darryl Dyck

VANCOUVER – In Halifax, Denise Pictou Maloney says the trauma and grief from the 1975 murder of her mother, Indigenous activist Anna Mae Aqaush, has never dimmed. Pictou Maloney was nine when she last saw her.

In Vancouver, Naneek Graham vividly remembers American FBI agents visiting her family’s home in Yukon in the 1980s to threaten her father, John Graham, with prosecution if he didn’t co-operate with the murder investigation.

Thirty-five years after the killing, Graham, a member of the American Indian Movement, was convicted of murdering Aquash by shooting her in the back of the head in South Dakota.

For decades, the two families on opposite sides of Canada have been unwillingly bound by the legacy of the murder that rocked the Indigenous movement 49 years ago, sparking years of legal wrangling and publicity about who ordered the hit, who carried it out, and why.

Now, Graham, 68, is trying to return to Canada to serve out the remainder of his life sentence. He is seeking what’s known as a treaty transfer from South Dakota and last month applied to the Federal Court of Canada to try to move the process along.

Graham’s daughter said the case has been a defining thread throughout her life, a “horrible nightmare” since her father’s incarceration.

“My dad’s been in jail for quite some time now and he’s ready to come home,” Naneek Graham said.

“He’s always maintained his innocence right from Day 1,” she said. “He really just wants to come home.”

But Pictou Maloney said Graham’s bid to return is “highly offensive.”

She said she still gets goosebumps thinking about the last time she saw her mother.

“She got down on her knees and looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘I want you to please look after your sister,'” she said. “The second thing she said was, ‘always speak the truth.'”

Pictou Maloney said the Nova Scotia-born Aquash returned to the U.S. against the wishes of her family, who wanted her to stay in Canada to avoid both U.S. law enforcement and the American Indian Movement, which had suspected Aquash of being an informant.

“That was her goodbye because I think she knew that things were going to go terribly wrong for her,” Pictou Maloney said. “She had to go back to prove that she wasn’t the person they were accusing her of.”

Instead of clearing her name, Aquash’s body was discovered on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation in early 1976.

It would take decades before two members of the American Indian Movement, Graham and Arlo Looking Cloud, were tried and convicted of the murder. But Pictou Maloney said those who ordered the hit were never brought to justice.

Graham’s case became a cause célèbre, with his proposed extradition opposed by some Canadian politicians, unions and First Nations representatives. Some supporters believed he was innocent and unfairly targeted by American law enforcement.

But he was sent to the United States in 2007 and was convicted in late 2010, resulting in a life sentence in prison in South Dakota where he remains.

‘OUR CLIENT DESERVES BETTER’

Controversy over Graham’s extradition has continued.

The B.C. Court of Appeal in 2022 found his Charter rights were breached, because, while Graham was extradited to face a federal charge of first-degree murder, he was instead convicted on state charges, and a waiver allowing the switch was improperly granted by Canada’s justice minister.

Graham now wants to return to Canada, a bid that has been held up for years. His lawyers say in an application submitted to the Federal Court of Canada last month that the transfer has hit a snag because South Dakota officials “failed to comply” with requests for the paperwork needed to process it.

The court application seeks to compel Canada’s public safety minister to request the paperwork.

“The minister has unreasonably delayed in deciding on whether to make a direct request to the State of South Dakota for the required documentation. The minister undoubtedly has the power to make such a direct request of the State of South Dakota,” says Graham’s Federal Court application.

The delay, Graham claims, has “undermined” his right to request a transfer under the International Transfer of Offenders Act.

South Dakota Assistant Attorney General Paul Swedlund said in an email that the allegations made to the Federal Court “are not accurate,” and the state opposes Graham’s return to Canada.

“These crimes were committed in the State of South Dakota and, therefore, it is in the State of South Dakota where Graham must serve his sentence,” Swedlund said.

Graham’s lawyer Marilyn Sandford said in an interview that the waiver issue remains outstanding and is separate from his treaty transfer application.

She said repeated attempts to communicate with U.S. government and prison officials haven’t produced results.

“In the meantime, we have a client in the background who is languishing and who is in custody in a foreign country far from his family,” Sandford said. “We write and we write and we write and we seem to get nowhere and never get an answer, and I think our client deserves better than that.”

Sandford said Graham has been stuck in a “terrible situation” as he awaits word on his transfer bid.

“I’ve been down to see him and it’s not a pleasant thing to see a Canadian stranded in custody so far from home,” she said.

The Ministry of Public Safety deferred comment on Graham’s case to the Correctional Service of Canada, which said in an emailed statement that it “is aware of John Graham’s application to the Federal Court of Canada.”

The statement said, “for privacy reasons, we cannot comment on specific cases.”

Naneek Graham said her father “has a right to his side of his story and his truth, but he’s never been able to share that, and he wants to share it.”

“He wants people to know what happened in all these lies, and he’s never been able to speak for himself, ever,” she said.

“He’s been sitting in jail for over 16 years now for something that he didn’t do, and not being able to tell his truth is really heartbreaking, it’s sad.”

But for Pictou Maloney, John Graham’s bid to get back to Canada represents another thorn of intergenerational trauma 50 years after her mother’s murder.

She said the killing was emblematic of the perils faced by Indigenous women from within and without, when they raise their voices in opposition to oppression.

“There are a lot of people out there that would like to see me silenced, and I would say that just from knowing my risk as an Indigenous woman out here speaking the truth with what happened to my mother,” she said.

“He’s able to appeal as much as he can,” said Pictou Maloney of Graham. “You know, my only wish is that my mother got to come home too.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 24, 2024.

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