An illuminating reconstruction of the life and death of a Mi’kmaq woman, “The Spirit of Annie Mae” plays simultaneously as testimonial biopic, murder mystery, a look at Native Americans’ battle to claim their rights and a case-specific analysis of political activism in the early ’70s. As constructed by award-winning documentarian Catherine Martin, herself a Mi’kmaq, film never loses focus, alternating voiceover narration with interviews with friends, family and fellow activists who, a quarter-century after Annie Mae’s unsolved murder at the age of 30, still feel passionately about her contributions. This Canadian NFB production should fare well south of the border in TV slots and at minority and women’s fests.
With the exception of her first husband who speaks of her with deep affection, almost all of the interviewees are strong women who see in Annie Mae Aquash’s story their own journey to empowerment. Annie Mae evolved from a teepee in Nova Scotia to a subsistence childhood on a reservation to a bourgeois family lifestyle in Boston. She worked with the underprivileged in Roxbury and then immersed herself in full-fledged political activism in the American Indian Movement (AIM).
Annie Mae’s participation personalizes docu’s recap of the now almost forgotten highpoints of the ’70s AIM protests. She took part in the marathon 100-day confrontation with the FBI at Wounded Knee and the march in Washington that led to the spontaneous occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Annie Mae was instrumental in the subsequent leaking of BIA documents that proved illegal seizure of Indian mineral and water rights.
Women who knew Annie Mae and fought beside her, talk about the marginalization of women both by the media and the movement itself. The aptly-named Regina Brave explains female warrior traditions while black-and-white archival footage shows her patrolling Wounded Knee with a rifle 30 years earlier.
Meanwhile, other Amerind women, from feisty journalist Minnie Two-Shoes to famed folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie, frankly criticize the movement’s inherent contradictions and volatile mix of political activism, animist spiritualism and druggy hedonism.
Speculation as to who murdered Annie Mae — she was shot in the back of the head, execution style — affords a glimpse into the paranoia and disarray caused by the infiltration of the AIM by the FBI and the movement’s unpreparedness to take on the government on more covert, bureaucratic battlegrounds. It’s particularly fascinating, in this hyper-legalistic age, to remember ’70s activists’ disenfranchisement from the legal system, all the more exacerbated for a people who supposedly constituted a nation apart.