Anna Mae Aquash – From the US to Kurdistan: the indigenous struggle for freedom

“I won’t stop fighting for my country until I die”(Anna Mae)

Some time ago we painted the portrait of Anna Mae Aquash on the wall of the Internationalist Commune of Rojava. Beside her are the faces of Commandante Ramona from Chiapas, the black American revolutionary Harriet Tubman, the PKK’s co-founder Sakine Cansiz and the Communard Louise Michel. The faces of these women remind us of the international struggles for liberation that have gone before and especially of the struggles of women.

All these faces and names represent struggles for liberation, and, as far away as some of them are from us historically, they are close to us in this moment of revolution. In this moment all the experiences of previous struggles are reflected. Their struggles are our heritage and the heritage of the Rojava Revolution. These struggles belong to the history of democratic, anti-colonial, revolutionary struggles that are building democratic modernity. From the stories, wishes, dreams and courage of these people we draw every day a new, strength to face the challenges of the revolution in Rojava.

The aims of the struggles these women participated in are not dissimilar to the aims of the Rojava revolution: the struggle for recognition of the identity of a people, the struggle of women for a dignified life, the struggle against economic oppression and patriarchal violence. Despite the time that has passed, we can see that the racism of the state and the division of societies existed in a way similar all around the world. We can see this history once again in the story of Anna Mae, the American Indian Movement and in Kurdistan.

“She was a fighter and she died in an Indian war” (Jake Maloney)

Anna Mae was born on March 27, 1945 in a small village in Nova Scotia in what is now called Canada. Both of her parents belonged to the Mi’kmaq tribe. In her early years, she began to understand the reality of her indigenous background, the racism of society, and what it was to live in an oppressive state. In this time she also learned about her own identity, the values of her society and it’s attachment to nature. In her youth she spent many months of the year in the natural setting of “Pine Tree” (a place outside of the state concentration camps where indigenous peoples had to live a life without dignity). At the age of 17, Anna Mae moved to the city of Boston. Like many indigenous people before her, she left the concentration camps behind in search of work, influenced by the “American way of life”- a promise of happiness and success for those who were willing to forget ethical values and the history of their own society and culture.

Living in Boston and working in a factory kept Anna Mae separate from her indigenous community. But in search of her roots, she began to visit the chairman of the indigenous community Peter Barlow more and more often, on Indian Island, she learned the history of her people from him. This story was not taught to her at school; it was a story of oppression, enslavement, annihilation. In this history she found the key her own language and culture again, despite the state’s attempts to keep indigenous people far from their roots. She discovered where she came from, understood who she was and was able to decide for herself where she wanted to go. Anna Mae was part of a new generation that rediscovered its cultural roots and thus laid the foundation for a broader indigenous resistance.

American Indian Movement

In 1968, Anna Mae met activists from the American Indian Movement (AIM). AIM emerged in this year as a result of protests of indigenous prisoners. The movement gained further power from the social upheaval caused by the ‘68 movements. The emergence of AIM led to a renaissance of indigenous culture. As the movement became more radical AIM fought for legal rights, economic independence, autonomy of tribal areas and the return of illegally confiscated land. AIM embodied the awakening of North America’s indigenous population, satisfying their need for collectivism and joint resistance.

Anna Mae observed and analysed the reality of many migrant indigenous people who found drugs as the only refuge from a capitalist and racist reality. She understood drugs as an instrument of the state to alienate, divide and separate the indigenous population from their culture and thus from their struggle. Anna Mae and her comrades created an alternative to this way of living when they built a cultural centre with the indigenous community in Boston in 1969. Here there existed a small, different world, a community based on their cultures, in the middle of a big city and the attacks of capitalist modernity. Anna Mae knew that with each generation it was harder for indigenous North American culture to survive; because of this she placed great emphasis on her children proudly carrying their indigenous culture and never feeling less valuable than others.

In March 1972 Anna took part in the so-called “Trail of Broken Treaties” campaign, a transnational protest movement for indigenous rights. This campaign ended in Washington D.C with an occupation of the “Office of Indian Affairs”. Within the office, activists found documents clearly proving the state’s intention to exterminate the indigenous population, showing, for example, that white doctors had secretly sterilized indigenous women.

Like many campaigns and activists linked to the ’68 and the indigenous movements, especially AIM, were targeted by the United States government, FBI and CIA and Anna Mae was declared a “threat to national security” because of her activism. The government carried out many special warfare attacks against AIM. Agents, like Douglas Durham infiltrated their spaces and tried to bring down the movement from the inside. Durham himself only publicly admitted his work for the FBI in 1974. Mistrust amongst activists was stirred up and agents accused AIM members of working for the state. Other parts of the movement were bought by the state and equipped with weapons to break the AIM resistance. The repression against Anna Mae became harder every day forcing her to live in a more clandestine way. During this time she often found refuge in indigenous communities.

“I was everywhere, but it was for the Indian people” (Anna Mae)

In 1973, Anna Mae, like many indigenous activists, travelled to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota to protest against the racist policies of the state, and commemorate the massacre of Wounded Knee. And the protests at Pine Ridge were directed against the collaborator in the Reservation with the state. Led by “Dick” Wilson the Oglala tribal leader in Pine Ridge and in cooperation with the state, a group of indigenous took up arms and terrorized members of AIM and others activists.

Spiritual leader Sitting Bull

Commemorating the massacre of Wounded Knee was an important part of indigenous resistance. The brutality of the state should not be forgotten, and nor should the resistance of the Siouxs. On 29 December 1890, 300 members of various Sioux tribes were murdered by US cavalry soldiers on the territory of what is now Wounded Knee, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota. With this brutal massacre, the resistance of the Sioux, led by the spiritual leader Sitting Bull, was destroyed by the state.

The protest led to the liberation of Wounded Knee. AIM militants, together with members of the Oglala Lakota clan, took control of the village. For 71 days they resisted and administered their own land. For activists like Anna Mae, however, this was not only a struggle against the state, its laws, secret service and military, but against the patriarchal structures that existed within the occupation and the indigenous community. Many women like Anna Mae refused to play the passive role in the resistance that was expected of them by their male comrades. These women fought to be able to take part in the resistance with a weapon in their hands and it was clear that it was the women who held the occupation and thus the community in Wounded Knee together, like cement holds stones.

After the end of the occupation Anna Mae moved back to Boston where she continued to work in the cultural centre. However, conscious of the magnitude and scope of the struggle she had begun to search for her place in the resistance. Through this search she became more and more involved in the work of the AIM. She took part in many actions and soon belonged to the close circle of leadership within the organization. In January 1975, along with armed militants of the Menominee Warriors Society, Anna Mae occupied the Catholic Abbey of the Alexian Brothers in Gresham, Wisconsin, for a month demanding the return of the land to the Menominee tribe. After the occupation, the organization sent her to California to help rebuild the organization in Los Angeles.

Still, celebrations and ceremonies that signaled the revival of indigenous identities were overshadowed by state violence and the influence of alcohol and other drugs. The state consciously used these substances to prevent a collective moment of spirituality of indigenous culture and the growth of a strong community around this identity. These substances caused division and violence, subservience and dependence. Anna Mae did not accept this and, as in Boston, she sharply criticized the situation of the indigenous community and the tolerance of drugs within AIM.

After several arrests, which bore no results for the FBI, rumours within AIM began to circulate that Anna Mae was an informant of the state. After a point these rumours could not be silenced. Despite their distrust of her, and her concerns for her own life, Anna Mae continued to try to convince the AIM leadership that she was not an informant. It is not clear, even today, whether or not these attempts were successful. Many people say that it was the organization that executed Anna Mae as an agent in February 1975. For others, it is clear that it was the state that murdered Anna Mae after deliberately spreading the rumour that she was an undercover agent. Anna was especially beloved by women in AIM. These women had the courage to believe in her until the moment of her funeral – unlike many men in the organization.

The story of Anna Mae and her people is the story of many revolutionaries and oppressed peoples. We can see similarities between the story of Anna Mae and the story of Kurdistan and the Kurdish liberation struggle. We can also see her story in the stories of all of the women painted next to Anna Mae on the wall of the Internationalist Commune.

Wherever people confront the state, it tries to break their resistance. In Kurdistan it was, and still is, the “village guards”, Kurdish clans, who are paid and equipped by the state to fight the guerrillas of the liberation movement in the mountains. There are agents who have infiltrated organisations here who provoke insecurity and betrayal and do not shy away from murder. On 9.1.2013 comrades Sakine Canzsiz, Fidan Dogan and Leyla Soylemez were murdered in Paris by Turkish agent Ömer Güney, who was disguised as sympathizer of the movement.

It was almost fate that a person with Anna Mae’s conviction would be buried as an “unknown” – forever missing. Only days after her burial, Anna Mae’s identity was established. From Argentina to Kurdistan, it is a strategy of the state to make activists disappear and bury them as unknown. Many of the relatives of these people know that their attempts to bring justice against the crimes of the state will result in failure. Nevertheless, like in Argentina every Saturday the “Saturday Mothers” gather in Istanbul to demand justice.

Mistrust and uncertainty are used to destroy revolutionary movements, as is the deliberate encouragement of substance abuse. We see this reality from the United States to Greece, to Kurdistan. Because of these strategies the will to fight and the dignity of those resisting are taken away from the people and bound to the system. Like Anna Mae, the Kurdish youth of today protest against the use of drugs in the communities, because the connection between the consumption of drugs and the oppression of state governments.

It is not only the oppression that has been used by states against revolutionary movements that creates similarities between the story of Anna Mae and the story of the revolution in Kurdistan. It is also the struggle for liberation in which women are playing a leading role. Women are a force that can hold the movements together, that can and should take responsibility for defending the culture and values of their societies. Anna Mae understood the importance of regaining and defending one’s own identity, language and culture; and as she said to her sister: It is the women who ensure that the languages of oppressed peoples are not forgotten. These powerful women exist from the women of the Mi’kmaq tribe to the women of Kurdistan. “Without an identity of one’s own, one’s own future cannot be determined” this is the starting point of the revolution in Rojava, where people of the Middle East go in search of their past, in order to determine their own futures, free from colonialism and imperialism. Anna Mae regained her identity, learned her language and culture and developed her struggle on this basis. In her last letters to her family she wrote:

“I’m Indian all the way. I hope I’m a good example of a human being and a member of the Mi’kmaq tribe”.

About Anna Mae:

Movie: The Spirit of Annie Mae

Book: Sifters – Native American Women’s Lives

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