From a journalistic standpoint, the story was paydirt--a bottomless cesspool of government conspiracy and under-the-table murder, social oppression and nerves-exposed racism, all set against the austere, pallid backdrop of America's western plains. Its dots longed to be connected; regions of its gristly underbelly were ripe for exploration. It was a human rights narrative so steeped in iniquity, it could've written itself. So why were reporters looking the other way?
Thirty years ago, the answer boiled down to a combination of economics and societal subjugation, says Steve Hendricks, Knoxvillian author of The Unquiet Grave: The FBI and the Struggle for the Soul of Indian Country , released in hardback last fall. "To be Indian in South Dakota in 1970 was about like being black in Alabama in 1950," he explains, seated in a quiet, dimly-lit corner of an Old City coffeehouse. "You didn't get help from the cops, you didn't get it from the judges, and you sure as hell didn't get it from the newspapers. Because the newspapers knew where their bread was buttered."
Even national newspapers like The New York Times seemed all but oblivious to the escalating violence spawned by American Indian race relations. "With the exception of the Siege at Wounded Knee, the national spotlight wasn't shown on what was going on out there the way it was shown during the Black Civil Rights Movement," Hendricks says, adding that while the comparisons between Blacks and Indians are valid to an extent, there are some critical differences.
"One of the reasons why our reservations are in such bad shape today is that their movement to rise in the 1970s was chopped off at the knees," he says. "You can imagine the federal government chopping the knees off of the Black Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s, how that would've impacted the state of black America today. That's not the only reason reservations are hurting, but it's a big one."
Still today, Indian reservations lie just off the public radar for many of us, existing as secluded, malnourished outposts of civilized Western society, easily forgotten or dismissed. According to 2000 Census data, American Indians experience greater poverty, are more susceptible to unemployment, are less likely to graduate from high school, and, when employed fulltime, are more likely to receive lower wages than the population at large. And still, the media is by and large unwilling to investigate the problem, or acknowledge its sordid roots.
"It would be hyperbole to say it's not covered," Hendricks clarifies, "but it's covered in the way that the typical urban newspaper would cover the black ghetto. It's covered if there's a bad enough murder out there, but it's not a priority. There's a very real aversion to printing something that challenges readers."
Hendricks' book is nothing if not challenging. It opens on Feb. 24, 1976, the day Anna Mae Aquash's body was found at the foot of an embankment in the South Dakota Badlands. Famously, following a muddled autopsy and rushed burial, the FBI recorded the American Indian activist's cause of death as "exposure." It was only after Aquash's friends had her exhumed that the .32-calibur bullet lodged in her skull was found, launching an investigation that raised question after question about the FBI's hostility toward and abuse of the Native American nation (with an emphasis on the Lakota Indians).
The remainder of the book digs its claws deeper into the issue than any exposé that's come before, reexamining these dark consequences as well as the social conditions that prompted them, firing questions and answering them not with sensationalism but with cold, hard facts.
"I wanted to get the full story out before the story died completely, before it went away and no one had any interest in it anymore," Hendricks says, a hint of impatience in his voice. Throughout our interview today, the author's speech is peppered with remnants of the frustration as well as ardor he must've experienced while researching the book--and such sentiments creep into the book's published pages as well. But Hendricks says that he hopes any traces of personal opinion are tempered by rational arguments for his belief.
"First of all, I don't believe in the fake objectivity of so much reporting. But on the other hand, you can't just come out throwing bombs at people," he explains. "One of the very difficult things for me was to try to build a case objectively enough, whichever case it was, so that by the time I started letting a lot of that passion out the reader was there with me."
Hendricks first became swept up in the issue when he moved to Montana with his new wife Jennifer, a lawyer, in 1998. At the time, he was an activist and freelance writer with political aspirations, but after a couple of failed runs for office, he settled down to the idea of finding a pressing social justice issue he could investigate at length in book form.
Little did he know his muse would surface in the couple's own backyard, by way of Indian reservations in the nearby Dakotas. "It wasn't getting much ink, but to me, there's nothing more pressing in that state and so many other Western states than the current conditions of Indian reservations out there," Hendricks says.
As he dug into preliminary research and reading, he realized that he had more questions than answers. Though Hendricks' experience as a journalist was somewhat limited, an investigative instinct kicked in; holes in the narrative illuminated themselves--contradictions, shoddy reporting, altered documents and evasive testimonies. A small publisher, Thunder's Mouth Press, took a chance on the unknown author's hunch and gave him a first book deal. Later, he'd also win a research grant from the prestigious Fund for Investigative Journalism.
After sifting through tens of thousands of documents on the issue, contained in the Minnesota Historical Society's archives, Hendricks felt he was ready to begin interviewing real people, a process he now describes as "a nightmare." To start with, it was nearly impossible to track residents of the reservations down from afar: Cell phone coverage was spotty at best, most phone numbers were unlisted, and few Indians had access to email. So he started going door to door, a strategy that yielded mixed results.
"Coming from an activist background, I assumed that a few people, once in while, one in 10, maybe, would say, 'Oh my God, I've been waiting 30 years for someone to knock on my door and ask me about this covered-up murder that I heard about or witnessed,'" Hendricks says, shaking his head. "No way. Never happened. Never ever happened."
In the Indians' minds, he was a white stranger, prying into business that they'd buried long ago, and what was the use of exhuming it now? "Making the argument that, 'Isn't it important that the truth come out?' didn't convince many people. They were like, 'We know the truth. We know, for example, that the Black Hills were stolen from us a century ago, and what good has that done us? The truth doesn't get us anywhere in this society. You just get stepped on all the more.'"
Eventually, however, Hendricks began to earn the Indians' trust, and the stories began to accumulate. But the most trying facet of his research had yet to come: getting documents out of the government. The crux of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is that, if you're asking for documents, and they don't violate national security issues and they don't violate the privacy of a living person, the government has 20 days to hand them over. All of which sounds nice in theory, but doesn't necessarily work in practice.
"What the FBI does when you send them a FOIA request is say, 'Thanks for your request, we're going to process it in a few years.' And process it doesn't mean they're going to give you the file. It means that in two or three years, they're going to say, 'Of our 1,000-page file, we're going to give you 200 pages.' And of that, you can be certain that the best part of those 200 pages is going to be censored."
It's a timeline that doesn't work for someone who has to get a book written by deadline. But luckily, Hendricks knew someone who could help. His wife Jennifer, a Harvard graduate who specializes in constitutional law and civil procedure and is currently an associate professor of law at the University of Tennessee, was willing to go to bat for her husband in the courtroom, effectively saving him tens of thousands of dollars in lawyer fees.
"One of the reasons I've found that this history is so little known is because the FBI has jurisdiction over this stuff," Hendrix says. "If you want to know about it, you have to get the documents from them, and how many people in Indian country have the money or the expertise or the spare time, with all of their other absorbing problems out there, to bring Freedom of Information Act lawsuits about this old stuff? They can't bring the suits, or aren't able to, so they're denied part of their history. That just enraged me."
Three-and-a-half years later, Jennifer and Steve still have lawsuits pending--"and if you talk to me three-and-a-half years from now, we probably still will," Hendricks predicts. "But we can't go on forever. We have to drop it at some point."
Some readers have suggested that the author write a follow-up to The Unquiet Grave , based on new stories and documents that have come to light in the wake of the book's publication. But Hendricks says he's not sure he'll have enough information to warrant a full sequel, and besides, he's got his hands full trying to get word out about this one.
His publisher, Thunder's Mouth Press, is a relatively small one, and he has to manage a lot of his own publicity. And ironically, areas of the country he suspected would be most interested in the book--the Dakotas, for instance--have turned a blind eye to its existence. "This book contains more scandals about South Dakota than any newspaper out there ever printed," Hendricks says. "And yet, not a single newspaper has reviewed the book. It was mentioned once in The Rapid City Journal , in brief. They're just not interested."
But frankly, by now, Hendricks isn't surprised. He knows how Chamber of Commerce newspapers work, and acknowledges that "nearly everyone I'm criticizing is an ally of the papers. So that's why they're not covering it today."
It's a sad revelation, but Hendricks isn't deterred. He's already working on his next book of investigative journalism.
This time, he's targeting the CIA.
The Unquiet Grave: The FBI and the Struggle for the Soul of Indian Country is available for purchase at area bookstores or online at amazon.com .