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


In Halifax, Denise Pictou Maloney says the trauma and pain from the 1975 murder of her mother, Indigenous activist Anna Mae Aqaush, has never subsided. Pictou Maloney was nine years old the last time she saw her.

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

Thirty-five years after the murder, Graham, a member of the American Indian Movement, was convicted of murdering 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 involuntarily linked by the legacy of the murder that rocked the indigenous movement 49 years ago, sparking years of legal disputes and publicity over who ordered the murder, who carried it out and why. . .

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

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

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

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

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

He said he still gets goosebumps remembering the last time he saw his mother.

“He knelt down, looked me straight in the eyes and said, ‘I want you to please 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. authorities and the American Indian Movement, which suspected Aquash of being a informant.

“That was his goodbye because I think he knew things were going to go terribly wrong for him,” Pictou Maloney said. “She had to return to prove that she was not the person they accused her of.”

Instead of clearing his name, Aquash’s body was discovered on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation 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 who ordered the murder were never brought to justice.

Graham’s case became a cause célèbre, with some Canadian politicians, unions and First Nations representatives opposing his extradition proposal. Some supporters believed he was innocent and that he was an unfair target of American law enforcement.

But he was sent to the United States in 2007 and found guilty at the end of 2010, which cost him a life sentence in prison in South Dakota, where he remains.


The controversy over Graham’s extradition continues.

In 2022, the British Columbia Court of Appeal found that his constitutional rights had been violated because, while Graham was extradited to face a federal charge of first-degree murder, he was convicted on state charges, and the Canadian Court of Appeal granted improperly granted an exemption that allowed the change. Justice minister.

Graham now wants to return to Canada, an offer that has been delayed for years. His lawyers say in an application filed with the Federal Court of Canada last month that the transfer ran into a problem because South Dakota officials “failed” to comply with requests for documentation needed to process it.

The court request seeks to force Canada’s public safety minister to request the documentation.

“The minister has unreasonably delayed deciding whether to make a direct request to the state of South Dakota to obtain the required documentation. “Certainly the Minister has the power to make a direct request to the State of South Dakota,” Graham’s application to the Federal Court reads.

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

South Dakota Deputy Attorney General Paul Swedlund said in an email that the allegations filed 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 the State of South Dakota that Graham must serve his sentence,” Swedlund said.

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

He said repeated attempts to contact the U.S. government and corrections officials have yielded no results.

“Meanwhile, we have a client in the background who is languishing and is detained in a foreign country away from his family,” Sandford said. “We write and write and write and we seem to get nowhere and never get a response, and I think our client deserves better than that.”

Sandford said Graham has been caught in a “terrible situation” as he waits for news about his transfer offer.

“I’ve been to see him and it’s not nice to see a Canadian abandoned and detained so far from home,” he said.

The Ministry of Public Safety referred comments 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 his father “has a right to know his side of the story and his truth, but he’s never been able to share that and he wants to share that.”

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

“He’s been in jail for over 16 years for something 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 attempt to return to Canada represents another thorn in intergenerational trauma 50 years after his mother’s murder.

She said the murder was emblematic of the dangers Indigenous women face, inside and outside, when they raise their voices in opposition to oppression.

“There are many people who would like to see me silenced, and I would say that simply because they know my risk as an indigenous woman who tells the truth about what happened to my mother,” she said.

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

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

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