Native Sun News: Thelma Rios denies role in 1973 Aquash murder

The following story was written and reported by Evelyn Broecher. All content © Native Sun News

RAPID CITY, SOUTH DAKOTA –– Thelma Conroy-Rios, an American Indian activist, has been accused as an accessory in the 1975 murder of Anna Mae Aquash. She blames her situation on an “irresponsible media addicted to sensationalism.” She said, “To me, these people abuse me when they print lies.”

But, who is Thelma Rios and, how did this Allen country girl get from the reservation to infamous AIM extremist on trial for accessory to murder?

Rios appears to be as confused as anyone about the charges against her. “Everyone knew my house was safe and clean. Alcohol was never allowed in my home. My home was open to all people in need, including people of all races, religions, and ages.” She said she opened her home to the homeless, and domestic violence victims, kids off the street, and elders in need.

“I have lived this way for 40 years, Rios said. “I was even a licensed foster parent. The Department of Social Services would bring me Indian children no one could handle. Even the police department would bring people who needed help to my home.”

“That’s why I don’t understand how anyone could even think I could stand by and watch any woman be kidnapped, abused, or tied-up,” Rios said, referring to prior testimony of events leading to the murder of Aquash.

“I didn’t know Anna Mae [Aquash],” Rios stated. “I have never seen her or even met her. That reminds me of the time U. S. Marshall, Robert Eccoffey interviewed me about Anna Mae’s murder. I saw his notes and in them he noted that I showed no emotion when he showed me her picture. How was I supposed to be emotional, when I did not know her? I never want to see anything like that happen, but still I did not know her,” Rios explained.

“My life has always been about my community and my family,” Rios said as she began to explain how she was thrust into the media spotlight. “I didn’t even know AIM existed until 1972, after the flood,” Rios continued. “I knew so many people in the community, so I was asked to help identify some of the bodies. It was then I heard a group of Indians were coming to Rapid City to help. I was told they were AIM members,” Rios said.

“Then, in 1973, I was at Wounded Knee during the AIM occupation, but it was under different circumstances than most people think. I was told Indian people were gathering in Oglala to discuss the corruption going on, on the reservation. Once there, we were all told the meeting would have to be moved to Wounded Knee, because too many people came. That’s when everything happened. Later, I heard we were tricked into going to Wounded Knee,” Rios said.

“Back then it just seemed like people were asking for me to translate [from Lakota to English] for the media. I translated for AIM, but that does not mean I was a member. I translated for many people,” Rios explained.

Next Rios told the story of how she was thrust into the media spotlight at the Indian take-over of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in 1970. Rios began, “Elder women asked me to come and help support them on Mount Rushmore. I went, and it was not long before the national television stations just started interviewing me. I did a lot of translating back then. As I was being taken to the media, I heard women saying behind me, “Why does she get to go. She’s not even full-blood.” That is the kind of treatment I have gotten all of these years, not by non-Indians, but by Indians,” Rios explained.

“I was an activist for my family and for the community ever since I came back to Rapid City when I was 15. I tried to do a lot of things for people in this city, but for some reason Indian people would undermine me at every turn. People in my neighborhood used to put flyers in our doors about community meetings. It wasn’t long before I found out they were skipping my house. I think the reason for this is I speak my mind, and I have no fear. And, the reason I have no fear is my life is based on my faith,” Rios said.

Rios spoke of her grandmother, Alice Charging Bear-Conroy, who whisked Rios away to Allen shortly after her birth in Rapid City in 1945. Rios explained, “My grandparents were strict believers in the Holy Trinity. They passed on this way of life to me. Then, I passed this way along to my children.”

“Yes, my home was open to some AIM members, just as it was open to anyone in need. When people would come to town, or are travelling through to powwows, things like that, I would go to my mother’s house while people stayed in mine. The way those AIM people lived was foreign to me like dragging their children all over the country. So, when people came, I packed up my children and went to my mother’s house,” Rios said.

“I didn’t want to expose my children to this different way of living. As a child I was never allowed to mix with other kids who drank alcohol, or did bad things in my grandparents’ view,” Rios added.

“My life has always been about my children and this community [Rapid City],” Rios said. “My daughter was born with a rare blood disease in 1970. I had been accepted at Black Hills State University around that time. I had to quit, because my daughter was sick,” she said.

“That is why it is very hurtful when people print lies about me. I was busy raising my children and caring for other family members, along with sitting on or chairing boards for the community. I had no time for anything else,” Rios stated.

In referring to a recent article written by David Seals, entitled “Interviews with Thelma Rios” dated January 10, 2004, Rios responded, “It’s all lies.”

Seals’ article was brought to Rios’ attention by her daughter. After she read it, Rios debunked everything in it. “The first lie is he [Seals] never interviewed me,” Rios responded. He came to my home to visit one time. At the time I believed he was working with elders on the Bear Butte Council. Now I know he was just trying to make money off of me with his lies,” Rios said.

“I worked with powerful, non-Native people in positions of status over the years,” Rios said. “It was for my community for both Native and non-Native people.”

Part II next week

(Contact Evelyn Broecher at