not a lot of native women from a small Micmac reserve in Nova Scotia end up murdered and buried on the wind-swept plains of South Dakota. Even fewer become international icons. The saga of Anna Mae Aquash, nee Pictou, of the 30 years she lived and in the 26 years since she died, continues to captivate the public.
She has become a symbol of tragedy and bravery that will undoubtedly outlive all those who knew her. In the years since her body was found in a ditch, a bullet in the back of her head, she has become larger in death then she probably would have been in life -- despite her political commitment and much- venerated compassion. Martyrdom is often sexier than any of the above. Ask Joan of Arc.
South Dakota, early and mid-1970s. A civil war is in progress on the Pine Ridge Reservation between the corrupt Band officials assisted by the FBI and traditionalist Indians supported by the American Indian Movement (AIM). Aquash is caught in the middle of the anarchy. People are accusing other people of being spies for the FBI. There are deaths almost weekly. Including, finally, Anna Mae's in December 1975.
Her murderer? Still officially a mystery, though new revelations point to AIM members driven to paranoia by FBI whisper campaigns -- again like Joan of Arc, who was betrayed by her own people. Her story practically drips with dramatic potential.
Just last week, Canada's premier aboriginal theatre company, Native Earth Performing Arts Inc., remounted a play about the fabled activist written and directed by the talented Yvette Nolan. Annie Mae's Movement is an attempt to tell her detailed story in 90 minutes. The performances of the two leads are wonderful, the set imaginative, but alas, Nolan's clever direction is stronger than the text.
The major problem with the play comes from the larger-than-life scenario it draws from. Anybody familiar with the story or who has thumbed through Peter Matthiessen's In The Spirit Of Crazy Horse knows everything that is going to befall her. That's the trouble with writing about a legend -- we learn what we already know but are left wondering what we don't.
In other dramatized stories based on historical events, like Saving Private Ryan, which takes place during the second world war's Normandy invasion, viewers clearly know the end of the story. The secret is to place a smaller, more intimate story within the larger scope of destruction. A microcosm inside the macrocosm. Unfortunately Annie Mae's Movement feels more like a good documentary. Or, more interestingly, a canonization.
Often with figures a community holds dear, writers are afraid to fudge the details or play with the truth. One of the first things a dramatic writer is told is that reality is a great inspiration but doesn't make for a finished script.
Several years ago I was hired by a film company to write a made-for-TV movie about a native man from Manitoulin Island who went hunting and got lost in the woods. The OPP suspended search efforts, but the people of his community kept looking until the 10th day, when they finally admitted there was no hope. As they were packing up that final day, the lost man walked out of the woods. A true story full of dramatic potential.
I wrote the first draft sticking to the facts and details. Then I met with the producer. He said it was a good start but was emphatic that he wasn't paying me to write a documentary. He told me to find the the smaller, more intimate story that personified the man, not tell the tale of a lost hunter surviving against nature. History lessons bore him, he told me.
Annie Mae's Movement is just the latest in a series of projects eager to explore those explosive 70s events. Most famous was the Michael Apted movie Thunderheart, starring Val Kilmer and Graham Greene. Here the character based on Aquash, played by Sheila Tousey, wound up face down in a shallow grave, and AIM founder and poet John Trudell, who figured largely in Aquash's life, also starred in the film.
But while the film was set in South Dakota in the middle of the same low- intensity conflict that killed Aquash, the script plays fast and loose with the facts. The main character is a mixed-blood Lakota FBI agent who discovers his roots, demonstrating that there are an infinite number of ways to spin the AIM epic. Aquash's life and the circumstances of her death have now become fodder for artists to examine and shape. Mythmakers, get your laptops ready.