On October 10, 1974, George Aird, a driver with the Red and White Cab Company, picked up Holly Broussard, Marvin Red Shirt, and Marcella Eagle Staff outside the Laurel Canyon home of actor David Carradine. Broussard, a non-native, had joined her Indigenous friends in search of a party they heard was taking place at the Kung Fu star’s house. Carradine was not home. And now, disappointed and high, they hijacked the taxi. Red Shirt drove the four of them to an American Indian Movement Camp in Box Canyon, in Ventura County, near the LA county line. Aird stepped out of his cab after they reached the camp. He was jumped by several men who stabbed him five times. The assailants then dragged Aird into a building where others joined in the violence, punching and kicking the wounded driver. Authorities found his body the next day, about a mile from his cab, stuffed into a three-foot drainpipe. They found him, one sheriff’s deputy said, by following “a trail of blood and hair.” He had been stabbed 17 times in all. Some news reports indicated that Aird had been scalped. Whether that was the truth or not, it was a brutal crime.
I stumbled across the story of George Aird’s murder in the pages of Akwesasne Notes, an “alternative” newspaper published on Mohawk land in New York State. I was reading through Akwesasne Notes looking for material on the Onondagas, about whom I have been writing a book. Aird’s story caught my attention because so much of the story took place in Ventura, California, the town where I grew up and where, it seemed at the time, nothing ever happened. I was a kid when the trial took place, but never heard a word about it. As historians, we find the subjects we write about when they strike us, or remind us of a connection to places and people that matter to us. We also stumble across topics worthy of research by happenstance, while we are looking for something else. This, then, is in part the story of my home town, but also a story of Native American activism, the trial of two AIM leaders each with long criminal records, and the murder of a man who did nothing more than show up at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Were I to conduct research on the trial for those charged with murdering George Aird, I would make my way home to Southern California. I would read the nearly 20,000 pages of court transcripts. I would try to find the principals involved in the story, and see if they are willing to meet with me and tell their story. Some of them are still alive. I am, however, unable to do that now. But I have read the copious coverage of the trial—one of the longest criminal trials in history of the State of California—and have some thoughts I would like to share here.
There was no shortage of suspects in Aird’s murder. Broussard, 19 years old and white, was charged with robbery. Marvin Red Shirt and Marcella Eagle Staff were charged with murder, kidnapping, and robbery. All three of them were covered with Aird’s blood when police found them. The trio, however, colluded with police to save their skins. They told the police about two individuals who fled from the AIM camp immediately after Aird’s death: Richard Billings Mohawk and Paul Durant Skyhorse. They had first taken shelter in the home of Ginger and Frank Sexton, unemployed “Indian Movement sympathizers,” before they left California. Mohawk was easy to find. He was recovering in a Phoenix hospital after getting shot in a bar fight. It had not taken him long to find more trouble. Phoenix police investigating the incident recognized Mohawk from a wanted poster circulated by the Ventura County Sheriffs. They caught Skyhorse the next day. The sheriffs picked up a handful more suspects, all of whom had lived at the AIM camp on 53 Box Canyon Road in Santa Susana.
The prosecutors hoped to bring the case to trial before the end of the year, but Skyhorse and Billings, acting as their own attorneys, and drawing on the advice of lawyers with whom they consulted, learned how to burden the justice system with a frustrating litany of petitions and appeals. They asked to have their trial moved from Ventura County to Los Angeles. They did not feel, they said, they could get a fair trial and find an unbiased jury in Ventura. An appellate court denied their appeal, but they took their case to the state Supreme Court. In December 1975, more than a year after Aird’s murder, the state’s high court ruled that the trial could proceed in Ventura County.
Skyhorse and Billings appealed to their allies. Both had played a role in forming the Chicago chapter of the American Indian Movement. They called for support. In November 1976, two years after Aird died, Carter Camp of AIM said that their prosecution was part of “an attempt by the FBI, the CIA, and the US Government to destroy the leadership of AIM.” Removed from its context, Camp might come across as hysterical, but AIM activists had good reason to believe the government was out to get them.
Dennis Banks and Clyde Bellocourt founded AIM in the Twin Cities of Minnesota in 1968, an organization that resulted from the challenges Indigenous peoples faced because of relocation to urban centers. AIM protested police brutality in the Twin Cities by monitoring and filming police patrols as they moved through Indian neighborhoods. They soon broadened their agenda, looking to improve housing and educational opportunities in the cities. Membership grew. John Trudell, a Santee Sioux, brought his considerable charisma to the organization. Russell Means joined AIM in 1970, a strident leader who would soon become one of the movement’s best‐known spokesmen. In October of 1972 leaders from AIM and the National Indian Youth Council began planning for a march on Washington dubbed the “Trail of Broken Treaties.” They occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs building, the headquarters of the agency many native peoples most closely associated with their mistreatment and marginalization. Four hundred Indians occupied the building, chaining the doors or barricading them with office furniture. The protestors stayed for a week. They stood on the steps of the building, wearing war paint, and carrying weapons fashioned from whatever they could find inside. They readied Molotov cocktails, should police seek to remove them from the headquarters by force. They would die there, if necessary, the occupiers told reporters covering the occupation. And they ransacked the Bureau completely, carrying away tons of incriminating documents that highlighted the agency’s historical mismanagement of Indian affairs. But the Trail of Broken Treaties suffered from poor planning and disorganization. The occupiers achieved none of their goals. The Nixon administration dismissed their calls for fundamental change in federal Indian policy as “impractical.” When the stolen Bureau of Indian Affairs documents began to appear in newspaper columns written by syndicated columnist Jack Anderson, the Nixon administration began persecuting and prosecuting the occupiers and their sympathizers.
Several months after the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the activism of the Nixon years reignited in South Dakota. In January of 1973, a white man killed a Sioux named Wesley Bad Heart Bull outside a bar in Custer County. Local authorities charged the attacker with manslaughter, nothing more, and AIM arrived to protest. Led by Dennis Banks, they asked the prosecutor to consider more serious charges. When he refused, a riot broke out. The protestors set the local Chamber of Commerce building on fire; local police and county sheriffs responded with tear gas and violence. Twenty‐two people were arrested, nineteen of them Indigenous peoples. In the aftermath of the Custer riot, elders at the Pine Ridge Reservation invited AIM to aid them in their struggles against tribal chairman Dick Wilson, the head of an IRA‐based government notorious for its corruption and strong‐arm tactics. Wilson maintained a personal police force, the well‐armed GOON squad (Guardians of Oglala Nation) to control and intimidate dissenters. He had defeated efforts by the Reservation’s residents to impeach him. His authority challenged, he called upon federal authorities for support: federal marshals with automatic weapons came to Pine Ridge, setting the stage for a showdown.
Led by Russell Means and Dennis Banks, AIM hoped to bring the attention of the world to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. If they had little familiarity with tribal traditions—both had spent much of their lives in cities—they knew well how to draw the media and generate interest. Late in February of 1973, they and a group of their followers, perhaps 300 in all, occupied the small village of Wounded Knee, the site of the massacre of Sioux Ghost Dancers eighty‐three years before. Most of the occupiers came from the surrounding Lakota reservations, but they received support from their fellow occupiers, among them Kiowas, Pueblos, Potawatomis, Senecas, and many others. Two Rappahannocks who had lived in New Jersey traveled west to join AIM at Wounded Knee. The occupiers had a handful of rifles; one of the occupiers had an AK‐47 with an empty banana clip. Some had served in Vietnam and felt keenly the injustice of the colonial system existing at Pine Ridge, where reservation residents had few rights and no redress. Desperate means called for desperate measures. Wilson’s GOONs and federal forces quickly surrounded the occupiers with an impressive array of the latest military technology: armored personnel carriers, high‐powered rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, and armor. The federal authorities fired off more than 130,000 rounds of ammunition during the occupation. In cities like San Francisco and Washington, the Nixon Administration was willing to exercise restraint in its response to Native American protests. Not so on a remote reservation in South Dakota.
On March 11, the occupiers issued a statement declaring the independence of the Oglala Nation. “We are a sovereign nation by the treaty of 1868,” the occupiers said, and “we want to abolish the Tribal Government under the Indian Reorganization Act. Wounded Knee will be a corporate state under the Independent Oglala Nation.” They rejected the “reorganized” government of the Pine Ridge Reservation and objected to a corrupt government out of touch with tribal traditions and willing to harass and violently persecute its opponents. Means and Banks attracted a considerable amount of attention but they could not achieve their fundamental goals, for the federal government would not see to the removal of Wilson, or address the fundamental structural causes of so much misery on Indian reservations. The occupation of Wounded Knee lasted seventy‐one days. At its end, two of the occupiers had died, and one federal marshal received a wound that left him paralyzed. Given the number of rounds fired, that so few were killed and injured was something of a miracle.
The occupiers left Wounded Knee in May of 1973. According to Banks, “Wounded Knee was the greatest event in the history of Native America in the twentieth century. It was,” he continued, “our shining hour.” Leonard Crow Dog, the spiritual leader and another of the occupiers, agreed that “our seventy‐one-day stand was the greatest deed done by Native Americans.” Still, Crow Dog noted, “we never got our Black Hills back, the Treaty of Fort Laramie was not honored, nor did the government recognize us as an independent nation.” In the words of historian Paul Chaat Smith, “there was a clear‐eyed, if often unspoken, acknowledgment that frequently our elders are lost or drunk, our traditions nearly forgotten or confused, our community leaders co‐opted or narrow,” but “they knew only one thing for sure: business as usual was not working, their communities were in pain and crisis, and they had to do something.” AIM brought considerable attention to the problems Indigenous peoples faced. Thanks to the organization’s efforts, many American people became aware for the first time of their nation’s long history of injustices toward American Indians. These achievements were significant.
Still, federal authorities relentlessly harassed and prosecuted the leaders of AIM. After the occupation, Dick Wilson resumed his campaign of repression against what he viewed as outside agitators. This violence led to the killing of two FBI agents in June 1975. After some shady legal maneuvering, a federal court tried and convicted Leonard Peltier, an AIM member, despite significant doubts about his guilt and procedural irregularities at his trial. Peltier remains in prison today. His trial ran parallel to that of Skyhorse and Billings. Protests against Wilson’s regime did little to remove the fundamental problem: the United States, though willing to embrace self‐determination, and to consider piecemeal changes in its policies toward Indigenous peoples, never abandoned the notion that Indians remained wards of the nation. It is important to remember this. The federal government in the second half of the twentieth century favored self‐determination and, in specific cases, implemented programs and policies that addressed historic injustice and the poor conditions under which many Indigenous peoples lived. But it would only go so far. A tension existed, between self‐determination and wardship, between sovereignty and colonialism, that individual Indigenous peoples, tribal, local, state and federal governments, and the federal courts would wrestle with over the coming years. Indigenous peoples survived termination’s direct negation of their political rights, and gained more control over their lives, but the ambiguities created by the conflicting forces of sovereignty and colonialism remained.
The trial still seemed far off in November of 1976. The prosecutors, that month, abandoned their plans to pursue the death penalty. Meanwhile, Marvin Red Shirt, who had agreed to testify for the prosecution in return for five years on probation, disappeared. In December, the Los Angeles Times noted that the case “has been in session more than 100 days, and has yet to come to trial.” This case showed, columnist Pat Anderson wrote in the Times, “the leisurely pace that can be set when defendants without legal training are allowed to act as their own attorneys and also demonstrates the length of time that can be consumed by pretrial motions which in practice are limited only by the funds available to the defense.” It was exhausting. Late in January 1977, Superior Court Judge Marvin Lewis quit the case. “Frankly, I was weary,” he said.
Skyhorse and Mohawk continued to assert that they could not receive a fair trial in Ventura County. In March of 1977, the county bar association provided them with compelling evidence that this could be the case. At the annual Ventura County Bar Association Dinner, several lawyers put on a skit called, “The People vs. Tonto,” that made fun of the lengthy pretrial proceedings. The judge and the prosecuting attorney were present. This poorly-thought out bit of racist humor–acted out as AIM activists protested outside–made it seem clear to many that the proceedings could not continue in Ventura. The California Bar Association called for a change of venue, which was granted.
Skyhorse and Billings continued to pepper the court with motions. Floyd Dodson, the replacement judge, had been defeated in his bid for reelection in Santa Barbara County, just north of Ventura County. He retired before his term ended, which made him eligible to serve as judge on special assignment. He took the case in Ventura County and, then, followed it to Los Angeles after the change of venue. Skyhorse and Billings argued that his selection effectively disfranchised those voters who had voted to replace him. Proceedings halted, once again, as the Superior Court heard arguments, rejected them and dismissed the motion. In April, they requested spiritual counsel from Ernest Peter of AIM, who they said would help them choose jurors. Though the pair acted as their own attorneys, they were visited by a host of legal experts who offered them advice. The motion gained Skyhorse and Mohawk attention, notoriety, and considerable public interest.
When jury selection began on April 12, Judge Dodson told potential jurors that the case may require an entire year, “plus or minus six months.” Forty of the first panel of 68 jurors were excused on account of the hardship the length of the trial might impose. Others who experienced hardship, apparently, were the deputies who monitored the two defendants while they were jailed in Ventura. They were happy to see the trial moved to Los Angeles. During the two and a half years Skyhorse and Billings spent in the Ventura County Jail, they threw food, water, urine, and cleaning fluid at their guards.
As the beginning of the trial approached, both Skyhorse and Billings underwent physicals at County-USC Medical Center They were run down, sympathetic attorneys said, from the effect of using a powerful painkiller called Talwin, which they had been prescribed after a jailhouse beating they received from sheriff’s deputies in Los Angeles.
The prosecution began presenting its case in June, 1977. Marvin Red Shirt had told investigators that he had seen Skyhorse and Billings stab George Aird many times. Red Shirt admitted that he had stabbed Aird as well, but only because the defendants had told him to. But now, on the witness stand, Red Shirt backed away from that story. “In my heart, I know I did not do it,” he told the jury. His testimony was a mess. He contradicted himself. He claimed that he never drank but he showed up at court with a blood alcohol level of .33, way above the legal limit for intoxication. Leonard Weinglass, one of the attorneys assisting the defense, requested a mistrial. One of the prosecution’s key witnesses was completely wasted.
Dodson was not about to grant a mistrial, but he must have begun to sense problems in the prosecution’s case with the next witness. Holly Broussard, Red Shirt’s “common-law wife,” could not even place Skyhorse and Mohawk at the crime scene, despite what she earlier had told investigators. Prosecutors began to search for a possible plea bargain. Carmen Fish, another woman at the AIM Camp when Aird was murdered, said in a taped interview played to the Court that she had seen Skyhorse standing near Aird’s cab on the night of the murder. But in court she told the prosecution that she feared the investigators and told them what she thought they wanted to hear. There were other tape recordings. Dodson ordered played to the jury an audio recording in which Skyhorse’s wife may have said that her husband killed Aird. Dodson refused to accept a plea deal that both sides agreed to—a no contest plea to second degree murder and a sentence of time served—and ordered the prosecution to continue to present its case. Judge, jury, and defendants visited the murder scene, and spent “a little more than an hour” looking “through the ramshackle building and junk strewn area.” When they returned to the courtroom, Marilyn Skyhorse admitted that she had told investigators that she had seen her husband at the scene of Aird’s murder, but now she argued that the police had coerced her into making that statement. Presented with the audio where she could be heard saying that her husband killed Aird, she said now that she was mistaken. She explained, the Times reported, “that she presumed it was him at the time because one of the three persons she saw at the murder scene was wearing his long blue coat.”
The prosecution witnesses did little to help the prosecution’s case. Marcella Eagle Staff took the Fifth. She explained that she had missed earlier court dates, she said, because she “was too busy partying.” But Skyhorse and Billings seemingly did not help their case as well. Because of an altercation in the jail, the prosecution requested that the two defendants not be allowed to act as their own attorneys. The court adjourned to hear motions on this matter. Worried about the consequences of the hearing, Skyhorse in June 1977 addressed Dodson. “I can’t help but entertain the notion,” he said, “that this may be the last time I get to speak in this court.”
He was right. Dodson ruled that the pair would no longer be allowed to defend themselves. They had been too disruptive. It was not until January of 1978 that the prosecution rested its case. They had called 53 witnesses, produced a trial transcript of 17,000 pages. Mohawk and Skyhorse presented a much more economical case. They wanted to show that Red Shirt, Broussard, and Eagle Staff were the actual killers, not them. They hoped to call to the stand two FBI informants—Virginia Blue Dove De Luce and Douglas Durham, a man heavily implicated in attempts to infiltrate AIM. De Luce, the defense asserted, had invited Skyhorse and Mohawk to the Box Canyon campsite, which Durham had set up early in 1974. Dodson said no. They called a dozen witnesses over eight days. They argued that they fled the crime scene not because they were guilty, but “because of how they perceive the system.” They said it was abundantly clear that Broussard, Red Shirt, and Eagle Staff were guilty, and that they were being framed. They had the victim’s blood on their clothing, and Eagle Staff had the driver’s keys in her pocket. They hijacked the cab, the defense argued.
The case finally went to the jury in May 1978. On the 25th, three and a half years after the murder of George Aird, the jury found them not guilty. Skyhorse looked at the lead prosecutor, Leonard Samonsky, and told him “your frame didn’t work.” Samonsky smiled in response. Skyhorse than said, “You think that’s funny, huh?” He moved towards Samonsky, but the bailiffs intervened. It did not matter, Skyhorse and Billings left the court house, free men, at least for a time.
Some AIM leaders considered the case a great victory. “The case of Paul Skyhorse and Richard Mohawk is yet another example of the government’s attempt to destroy and discredit the Indian Movement. So said an editorial writer in Akwesasne Notes. Another wrote that
From behind bars, Skyhorse and Mohawk have exposed FBI agents, fought the death penalty, police brutality and racism in California. They continue the struggle for liberation behind brutal walls. Their resistance, along with massive public pressure, can keep this conspiracy from arriving at the government’s predetermined conclusion.”
Richard Mohawk and Paul Skyhorse found themselves charged for a murder that took place two months after Richard Nixon left office. They were incarcerated for the entirety of the Ford presidency and much of Carter’s. These were significant years in American Indian policy. While AIM found itself falling to jagged pieces under the pressure of government persecution, and the Supreme Court laid body blows to the concept of American Indian tribal sovereignty, Congress and the Executive began to enact some of the most consequential legislation for Indigenous peoples in American history.
I spend some time in Native America discussion the legislation enacted the same year in which Skyhorse and Billings were found not guilty. Acknowledging that in the past the United States had pursued policies that “resulted in the abridgment of religious freedom for traditional American Indians,” Congress in August approved the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which pledged the United States “to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions of the American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut, and Native Hawaiians, including but not limited to the access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonies and traditional rites.” AIRFA was limited in its effect by the Supreme Court, but it was an important statement from a government that historically had done so much to eradicate Indigenous religions.
Aware of the growing number of native peoples who belonged to communities that had neither signed treaties with the United States nor been the specific objects of federal legislation, Congress in early October established a set of guidelines for the “Federal Acknowledgment of Indian Tribes” that had not been officially recognized by the government in the past as Indian. The “acknowledgment” statute required that an Indian tribe, in order to be formally recognized as such by the Interior Department, demonstrate that they had “been identified from historical times until the present on a substantially continuous basis as ‘American Indian,’ or ‘aboriginal.’” They needed to demonstrate as well that the members of the community had inhabited a specific area or that they live “in a community viewed as American Indian and distinct from other populations in the area.” The petitioning tribe was also asked to establish that it had “maintained political influence or other authority over its members as an autonomous entity throughout history until the present.” Acknowledgment, the statute read, “is a prerequisite to the protection, services, benefits, from the Federal Government available to Indian tribes.” Such acknowledgment, the statute continued, “shall also mean that the tribe is entitled to all the immunities and privileges available to other federally acknowledged Indian tribes by virtue of their status as Indian tribes as well as the responsibilities and obligations of such tribes.”
Two weeks later, Congress passed the Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act, which provided grants for the operation of junior colleges on Indian reservations in order “to insure continued and expanded educational opportunities for Indian students.” Native communities had long recognized the importance of higher education, but access had always been a challenge. Cankdeska Cikana Community College, formerly known as Little Hoop College, was founded by the Spirit Lake Dakotas in North Dakota in the early 1970s. The college provided vocational and technical training, but also a curriculum that fostered “the teaching and learning of Dakota culture and language toward the preservation of the tribe.” Other communities established colleges throughout the West early in the 1970s, beginning with Navajo Community College. In response to the passage of the 1978 statute, a number of western tribes established new institutions of higher learning emphasizing a culturally relevant curriculum. Little Big Horn College, founded at Crow Agency on the Crow Reservation, struggled to survive with scarce resources in its early years but grew into a successful junior college. From thirty‐two students during its first semester in 1981, now more than 300 students enroll each term. All take courses in Crow Studies alongside a variety of skills‐based programs and courses designed to prepare them for transfer to four‐year colleges.
Congress in 1978 attempted to address the legacies of some of the nation’s most destructive policies toward Indigenous peoples. Early in November, Congress enacted a series of educational reforms for schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, designed to provide equal educational opportunity for Indigenous children. One week later, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act, designed to halt the traumatic removal of Indigenous children from their homes through fostering and adoption. The problem was severe. Dakota Sioux at Spirit Lake, for example, had asked the Association of American Indian Affairs (AAIA) to investigate such removals, and the AAIA reported that of the 1100 Dakotas under the age of 21 who lived at Spirit Lake in 1968, 275 had been separated from their families. In states with large Native American populations, the AAIA found that between 25% and 35% of children had been removed from their homes. Indigenous peoples organized to halt this highly destructive practice, and the battle for the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act, according to its best historian, “represented one of the most fierce and successful battles for Indian self‐determination of the 1970s.” ICWA, as it’s known, committed the United States “to protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families by the establishment of minimum standards for the removal of Indian children from their families and the placement of such children in foster or adoptive homes which will reflect the unique values of Indian culture.”
Against these achievements, Skyhorse and Mohawk may not count for much. Leonard Weinglass, who took over the defense after Dodson ruled that the defendants would no longer be allowed to represent themselves, said that the verdict was “a victory for native Americans who have not always fared well in these courts. And I think it’s a victory for all people in this country who are concerned about justice.” Samonsky was angry. He thought he had a solid case, but the witnesses he called seldom said what he expected them to say. Reading the papers, it is difficult to conclude that he was very good at his job. “I’m disappointed for the public’s sake whom I represent,” he said. “I’m still positive that the defendants are guilty of the murder.” But he could not convince the jury that this was so. Samonsky may have felt some vindication when Skyhorse and Mohawk were arrested in 1983 for the robbery of a Security Pacific Bank branch in Los Angeles in which one customer was wounded by a blast from a shotgun. Durant was sentenced to eight years, Mohawk twenty. Skyhorse and Billings were no angels. They had long criminal records. But it is difficult to believe that they killed George Aird.
Someone someday could write a book about this single year in Native America. In 1978 Congress enacted legislation to protect Indigenous nationhood, Indigenous families, Indigenous art, and systems of learning. The Court, at the very same time, began to disassemble these institutions, a process it could come close to achieving in the coming months. Perhaps my views of this case will change if and when I read the entire trial record. Perhaps the newspapers covered the case poorly. They spent a great deal of time discussing the cost of the case, even though that is not relevant to questions of guilt and innocence. During the time between their arrest and acquittal, Leonard Peltier was captured, tried, and sentenced to two life sentences. Anna Mae Aquash was murdered in 1975. Two months after the acquittal, the Longest Walk began, a movement directed towards an international approach to Indigenous rights. Years mean little as categories of analysis. But the combination of events that came together in 1978 offers a way to see the place of Indigenous peoples in the United States during a short period of rending change. The events of that year have left a decidedly mixed legacy. Winners and losers, to be sure, but mostly losers and losses. Aird’s family? They shrieked in anguish when, after three and a half years, the jury foreman pronounced Skyhorse and Mohawk not guilty. The defendants? They quickly left Los Angeles to face legal troubles in other states. Their lives were no easier afterwards, a consequence of crimes committed across America. And its hard to see what AIM gained from the trial. So much happened in 1978. This is but one part of that larger story. It may have mattered less in the long run, but more people read about this case than they did about any of the court cases or pieces of legislation that came out that year.