Two daughters, two parents and the echoes of a murder that shook indigenous activism

In Halifax, Denise Pictou Maloney says the trauma and grief caused by the murder of her mother, Indigenous activist Anna Mae Aquash, in 1975 has never lessened. Pictou Maloney was nine years old the last time she saw her.

In Vancouver, Naneek Graham vividly remembers American FBI agents visiting her family’s home in the Yukon in the 1980s to threaten her father, John Graham, with prosecution if he did not cooperate with the investigation into the murder.

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

For decades, the two families on opposite sides of Canada have been unwittingly linked by the legacy of the murder that shook the Indigenous movement 49 years ago, sparking years of legal wrangling and publicity over who ordered the hit , who executed it and why. .

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Today, Graham, 68, is trying to return to Canada to serve the remainder of his life sentence. He is seeking what’s called a treaty transfer from South Dakota and last month filed an application with the Federal Court of Canada to try to move the process forward.

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

“My dad has been in prison for a while now and he’s ready to come home,” Naneek Graham said.

“He always maintained his innocence from day one,” she said. “He really just wants to come home.”

But Pictou Maloney said Graham’s comeback attempt was “very 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 take care of your sister,'” she said. “The second thing she said was, ‘always tell the truth’.”

Pictou Maloney said Aquash, born in Nova Scotia, returned to the United States 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 suspected Aquash of being an informant.

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

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

It would be 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 behind the attack were never brought to justice.

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

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


The controversy over Graham’s extradition continued.

In 2022, the British Columbia Court of Appeal found that his Charter rights had been violated because, although Graham was extradited to face a federal charge of first-degree murder, he instead been convicted of state charges, and a waiver authorizing the change was wrongly granted by the Government of Canada. Justice Ministry.

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Graham now wants to return to Canada, a bid that has been delayed for years. In a motion submitted to the Federal Court of Canada last month, his lawyers say the transfer ran into a problem because South Dakota authorities “failed to respond” to requests for documents needed to process it. .

The legal request aims to force Canada’s Minister of Public Safety to request the documents.

“The Minister was unreasonably late in deciding whether to make a direct request to the State of South Dakota for the required documents. The Minister undoubtedly has the authority to make such a direct request to the State of South Dakota,” Graham’s federal court petition states.

According to Graham, this delay “infringed” his right to request a transfer under the International Transfer of Offenders Act.

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

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

Graham’s attorney, Marilyn Sandford, said in an interview that the waiver issue remained unresolved and was separate from his treaty transfer request.

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She said repeated attempts to communicate with U.S. government and prison officials had not yielded results.

“In the meantime, we have in the background a client who is languishing and is in detention 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 a response, and I think our client deserves better than that.”

Sandford said Graham was stuck in a “terrible situation” as he waited for news of his transfer bid.

“I went to see him and it’s not a pleasant thing to see a Canadian stuck in detention so far from home,” she said.

The Department 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 reasons of confidentiality, we cannot comment on specific cases.”

Naneek Graham said her father “is entitled to his side of his story and his truth, but he was never able to share it and he wants to share it.”

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

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“He’s been in prison for over 16 years now for something he didn’t do, and to not be able to speak his truth is really heartbreaking, it’s sad.”

But for Pictou Maloney, John Graham’s attempt to return to Canada represents another thorn in intergenerational trauma, 50 years after his mother’s murder.

She said the killing was emblematic of the perils Indigenous women face, from within and without, when raising their voices against oppression.

“A lot of people would like to see me silenced, and I would say that just because I know the risk I take as an Indigenous woman here to tell the truth about what happened to my mother,” she said. declared.

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

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