Russell Means, American Indian Activist


Russell Means

Today is Saturday, November 30, 2013.

Today is the last day of Native American Heritage Month for 2013, and this series of posts would not be complete without mention of one of the most colorful, outspoken, Native Americans in modern history, Russell Charles Means.  It’s not easy to be ambivalent about Russell Means: you either love him or hate him – or he just confuses the hell out of you.

Means’ mother was Yankton Dakota and his father was Oglala Lakota.  (Both Dakota and Lakota are also known as Sioux Indians.)  He was born on November 10, 1939, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and he died a few days shy of his 73rd birthday, on October 22, 2012, in Porcupine, South  Dakota, which is within the Pine Ridge Reservation.  He didn’t spend all his life there, though.  His first two years of life were spent on his mother’s Yankton Sioux Reservation.  When he was three years old, his family relocated to San Francisco, California, where his father worked at a shipyard.  Means grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from San Leandro High School in 2958.  He recalled a harsh childhood in his 1995 autobiography.  Although Means says he admired his father in some ways, his dad was an alcoholic, and Means admitted following in his father’s footsteps, spending his youth on violence, drugs and alcohol, and participating in criminal activities until he joined the American Indian Movement, which gave purpose to his life. In many ways, however, Means continued to behave like an “angry young man” all his life.

Means recalls his 20s as his “I-don’t-give-a-damn-years.”  Means lived on several different Indian reservations throughout the United States, always searching for work: janitor, printer, rodeo rider, ballroom dance instructor, and Champion Fancy Dancer.   His mother encouraged him to participate in Fancy Dancing, and presented him with his first regalia once he expressed interest in learning.  Later in life, Means was scornful of modern “pow-wows,” where Fancy Dancing is a competitive sport, with substantial amounts of prize money awarded to the winners.

Means spent a decade attending four different colleges: Merritt College, Sawyer School of Business, Iowa Tech, and Arizona State University.  He ended up not graduating from any one of them, reasoning that he didn’t need a piece of paper to tell him that he was smart. Instead, he found a job as a computer programmer.  He traveled to Phoenix, where he worked for Transamerica Title Insurance, then went back home to the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation where he worked as a systems designer. At the Rosebud Reservation, just east of Pine Ridge, Means met some activists while working for the Office of Economic Opportunity.  Later, he lived in Cleveland, Ohio, where he worked as an accountant, and spent time with the Native community there as part of the Civil Rights Movement.

Russell Means and Dennis Banks

Russell Means with Dennis Banks during the Wounded Knee Occupation

In 1968, the world was “ripe for rebellion.”  Students were involved in anti-war protests, and migrant workers, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, blacks, and women were all beginning to stand up for their rights.  The activities of groups such as the Black Panthers, the National Lawyers Guild, the Weather Underground, and the Puerto Rican Young Lords were capturing headlines and making the government sweat.  The American Indian Movement  (AIM) was the only group of this kind to survive past the Civil Rights Movement years.  Means joined AIM that year and quickly made himself known as one if the leaders of the movement.  He credited his involvement with AIM for giving him a purpose in life.  It may sound uncharitable to say this, but it gave him a reason to be an “angry young man” more or less permanently.  And he was good at it.  Means was a charismatic man, and a powerful speaker, and he used these qualities to gain national attention for his cause.

In 1969, he was one of a number of Native Americans, mostly local college students, who took over Alcatraz Island, the site of an abandoned federal penitentiary. They were soon joined by indigenous people from all over, including South America. At one time there were as many as 400 people occupying the penitentiary buildings.  They wanted control of Alcatraz to develop a center of Native American studies, a spiritual center, and a museum.  They also wanted to end the government’s policy of terminating Indian reservations and relocating the residents to urban areas.  In addition, they wanted to focus attention on the many broken treaties between the U.S. government and the tribes, and all the broken promises made to the Indians, but never fulfilled.  In spite of a Coast guard blockade, the press, with the help of liberal Bay Area residents, delivered supplies to the occupiers. and many Americans all over the country were sympathetic to their cause.  The occupiers never did achieve most of their demands, but then-President Nixon did formally end the tribal termination policy in June 1970, which the Natives counted as a victory.

TV and film actor Benjamin Bratt and his brother Peter were among those who occupied Alcatraz.  On the 40th anniversary of the occupation, they issued a statement that said, “It’s easy to pass off the Alcatraz event as largely symbolic, but the truth is the spirit and dream of Alcatraz never died, it simply found its way to other fights.  Native sovereignty, repatriation, environmental justice, the struggle for basic human rights — these are the issues Native people were fighting for then, and are the same things we are fighting for today.”  This, in a nutshell, was what Means’ whole life was about.

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Means did all the talking, it seems, while Banks mostly looked on.

In 1970, Means and other AIM leaders staged a protest in Boston on Thanksgiving Day.  They seized the Mayflower II, a replica of the ship that carried European settlers to the New World, to protest the U.S. government’s mistreatment of Native Americans.  From that time forward, as I wrote in an earlier post, groups of activists have held prayer services and protest events on Thanksgiving Day, calling it a National Day of Mourning.

In 1971, Means was one of several AIM leaders who took over Mount Rushmore, a federal monument located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, land that is sacred to the Lakota tribe. Means called Mt. Rushmore “The Shrine of Hypocrisy.”  Like many Native Americans, he did not think of the four men whose faces were carved on the mountain as “founding fathers.”   When asked on the second day of the occupation by park authorities how long the group intended to stay, their answer was, “as long as the grass grows, the water flows and the sun shines.”   The protesters were peaceful, spending much of their time in a prayer vigil.  They were able to occupy the monument for approximately three months before severe weather ended their efforts.  Once again, they didn’t really manage to achieve much except to give a sense of hope to the Native American people, and a message that it was OK to stand up and fight systemic, institutionalized racism and mistreatment.

Years later, Means commented on carvings of the faces of four U.S. presidents on Mount Rushmore, a sacred mountain to the Lakota, saying, “Imagine going to the holy land in Israel, whether you’re a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim, and start carving up the mountain of Zion. It’s an insult to our entire being.”

By now you are surely thinking that this man never missed a beat.  It does seem that he had his hand in a major protest action every year, and 1972 was no exception.  That was the year that AIM leaders occupied the headquarters of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in Washington, D.C. for a week.  They destroyed or stole records and did over $2 million in damage to the building.

The action that gained Means the most notoriety, however, was the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee, a little town of just under 400 (as of 2010), located within the Pine Ridge Reservation.  Beginning in February of that year, some 300 Oglala Lakota and two dozen AIM followers occupied the little town for 71 days, establishing a headquarters in the general store, and Means directed defense from a Catholic church on a hill, aided by members of the tribe who were Vietnam vets.  The armed standoff came about in part because of an internal political struggle for control of tribal leadership.  The Oglala Civil Rights Organization had tried to impeach then-tribal president Richard Wilson, who was accused of corruption and abuse of anyone who opposed him by a private militia known as the GOONs.  (Guardians of the Oglala Nation)   Wilson, of mixed-blood ancestry, enjoyed the support of the BIA, which helped to govern tribal affairs at the time.  Many full-blood members of the tribe with more traditional views said that Wilson favored his family and other mixed-bloods in handing out jobs and benefits. “Traditionals” had their own leaders and influence in a parallel stream to the elected government recognized by the United States. The traditionals tended to be Oglala who still spoke their native language and held onto their traditional customs.  Traditionals generally did not participate in federal programs administered by the tribal government. The protesters felt that the United States government should intervene on their behalf and restore equity and fair play to tribal government.  The protesters wanted the government to enforce the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, which guaranteed Indian nations territories and sovereignty.  They wanted the Senate to investigate corruption within the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and they wanted free and honest elections on the Pine Ridge Reservation.  Another concern was the violence against Natives in border towns just outside the reservations, where the whites were doing a booming business selling liquor to the Natives.  (Alcohol was banned on the reservation at the time, and it was only a few months ago this year that the tribe finally voted to allow alcohol sales on the reservation.  In fact, border town violence was one of the issues in this recent vote, along with the fact that the tribe wants to be able to control and benefit from liquor sales within the reservation.)

Russell Means

Means talking, Banks looking on.

The longer the protest lasted, the more it became about more general issues of mistreatment of Natives and the broken promises on the part of the U.S. government. The rebels hoped their stand would incite members of other Native American tribes  to continue their struggle for freedom.  Ten days after the siege began, people were allowed into Wounded Knee to check on relatives, but they were not allowed out.  The occupation was reported on the national news, with the result that many Natives from all over the country came to support the protest.  Means quickly assumed a leading role, especially when the TV cameras were present.  There are many pictures of Means and fellow AIM leader, Dennis Banks, taken during the Wounded Knee standoff. In each of them Means is the one who is talking, while Banks looks on.  Indeed, it has been said that this is where Means realized the “power of the sound bite,” which he continued to use very effectively throughout his life.

One of the unintended results of the Wounded Knee occupation was a renewed interest in their own culture on the part of Native Americans.  When the incident occurred, the population of Natives in the United States was at a historic low, and they were being strongly encouraged to move to urban areas and “blend in” with the rest of the American population.  No efforts were made to maintain Native culture or teach the Native languages in the schools.  While they were at Wounded Knee, many of the protesters were also learning – some for the first time – about their heritage.  Their Lakota hosts began to teach these people about the traditional ceremonies and practices.  What emerged was a sort of “pan-Indian” culture, if you will, and although various tribe-specific beliefs and ceremonies still exist, more and more these days, Native Americans are joining with members of other tribes to preserve Native languages, cultures and heritage, guarantee true freedom for Natives to worship in traditional ways, expand opportunities for education and jobs, and improve the economic conditions and lifestyles of all Native Americans, whether or not they are living on reservations.

After the protesters agreed to stand down, Means and fellow activist Dennis Banks were arrested and jailed for their part in the occupation, charged with assault, larceny and conspiracy.  Although they were formally represented by Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee, including attorneys William Kunstler and Mark Lane, Means acted as his own counsel in a total of 12 criminal trials.  He was acquitted on every count against him.  The original case was dismissed in 1974 due to prosecutorial misconduct.

In 1974, Means resigned from AIM to run for the presidency of his native Oglala Sioux Tribe (OST) against the incumbent Richard Wilson. Residents complained of intimidation by Wilson’s private militia. The official vote count showed Wilson winning by more than 200 votes. A government investigation confirmed problems in the election, but a federal court upheld the results.

Means’ resignation from AIM didn’t last long, but he ended up “resigning” five or six times in the next few years, and eventually split with AIM on the issue of his support for indigenous people in Nicaragua, whom he believed were being targeted for genocide.  There was a split between the original AIM organization, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and a group allied with Means, and based in Colorado.  The group in Minneapolis formally asked Means to stop referring to himself as an AIM leader in 1988.

In the late 1970s, Means participated in an international forum on issues of rights for indigenous peoples. He worked with the United Nations to establish the offices of the International Indian Treaty Council in 1977. At the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, he helped to organize community institutions, such as the KILI radio station and the Porcupine Health Clinic in Porcupine, South Dakota.


Russell Means as Chingachgook, in The Last of the Mohicans.

Means was catapulted to fame, and among other things, tried his hand at acting in films and on TV.  His film credits include Wind River, Poccahontas, Wagons East, Natural Born Killers, Windrunner, and The Last of the Mohicans, in which he played Daniel Day Lewis’ father Chingachgook.  Years later, Means commented, “When I was vying for the role against Dennis Banks, I asked Michael Mann [the director], “Why us? We aren’t actors.” He said, “I was a documentary filmmaker in the early seventies, and when I wrote the character Chingachgook, I wanted him to embody what you and Dennis Banks represented to me in the seventies.” Wow, what a compliment! So that’s what I harked to. I’ve always considered myself a man of integrity as a leader of the American Indian Movement and of Indian people.”

Means used his fame as a pulpit from which to do everything in his power to win sovereignty, respect, and dignity for Native people.  He helped to establish a school on the Pine Ridge Reservation that was to teach all subjects in the Lakota language.  The TREATY School did open in 2010 with a small class of pre-schoolers, but it is unclear whether it is still operating.  Recently, school districts that operate within the reservation have created classrooms where students can be instructed in the Lakota language.  Means’ vision was to have teachers who were native speakers of Lakota, but who did not necessarily have formal education.  I suspect that this may have worked against the success of his total immersion school.


Means as Chingachgook

In 1983 he agreed to become running mate to Libertarian candidate Larry Flynt in his unsuccessful run for U.S. President.  In 1987, Means ran for nomination of President of the United States under the Libertarian Party, and managed to attract considerable support within the party, finishing second at the 1987 Libertarian National Convention.  He lost the nomination to Congressman Ron Paul.

In 2001, Means began an independent candidacy for Governor of New Mexico, but his campaign failed to satisfy procedural requirements and his name was not put on the ballot. In the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections, Means supported independent Ralph Nader.

Means recorded a CD called Electric Warrior in 1993 and an album called The Radical a few years later.  He was recognized posthumously in 2013 by the Native American Music Awards with a Hall of Fame award.   Means was also a painter who showed his work in galleries around the world.  He was married five times, the first four marriages ending in divorce.  He was married to his fifth wife, Pearl Means, until his death. He had a total of ten children, including sons Tantaka Means, an up and coming actor, comedian and inspirational speaker,  Scott Means, also an actor, and Nataanii Means, a hip-hop artist who has recently released his debut album.

In August 2011, Means was diagnosed with inoperable esophageal cancer.  He told the Associated Press that he was rejecting “mainstream medical treatments in favor of “traditional American Indian remedies” and alternative treatments. At the end of that year, he announced that he had beaten cancer, but it turned out that he spoke too soon.  He died the following October.  A family statement said, “Our dad and husband now walks among our ancestors.”

Of death, Means said, “I’m not going to argue with the Great Mystery.  Lakota belief is that death is a change of worlds.  And I believe like my dad believed.  When it’s my time to go, I’ve told people after I die, I’m coming back as lightning.  When it zaps the White House, they’ll know it’s me.

Over the years, Means has made a lot of sweeping statements, all of which are very interesting, but some of which may be a little hard to credit.  I’ve already written his comments on Mount Rushmore.  Many Natives at one time got behind the idea of carving a monument to Native Americans, called Crazy Horse on privately held land in the Black Hills.  The original sculptor has died, and the project remains unfinished.  Means commented, “When I got drunk with Korczak Ziolkowski [the sculptor who began the carving in 1947] at his home in 1972, he told me when referring to the sculpture, “In the words of P.T. Barnum, there’s a sucker born every minute .” The Crazy Horse Monument is a farce. Once it is completed, lightning is going to strike and destroy the whole thing. There was never a picture of Crazy Horse. Ziolkowski gathered up all those old chiefs and gave them each $100 and asked them to pose and smoke the pipe with him, so later he could claim that he got their approval.”

When asked about the commercialization of pow-wows and Fancy Dance competitions, Means said, “The Americanization of America is what has happened. You know America always put forth this phony melting pot theory, but it’s a reality now. They couldn’t accomplish the melting pot economically; they couldn’t accomplish it politically, or through education and science. But America has become a consumer society, and I see young people in the cities–of all colors and races–hanging out together over consumerism. Children in poverty aren’t trying to get out of poverty; they’re just trying to rip off a pair of Nikes. So we Indian people are a microcosm of what’s happening in America. We are now consumers, and our culture has gone.”

means 4

You can watch one of Means’ last interviews here.

On the present condition of Native Americans, Means had this to say: “We are yet to be considered human beings, even though the Pope issued a papal bull in 1898 that declared us to be human beings. But to show you the institutional racism, the sports teams are still using the Indians as mascots. The mainstream churches still have missionaries on Indian reservations at the beginning of the new millennium. They’ve had us captured on reservations a minimum of 125 years, and yet they still have missionaries here. They don’t have missionaries in Appalachia; they don’t have them in the ghettos or the barrios. They have churches that support themselves. I say to the Christians and to every missionary on the reservations, you’re welcome to have a church here if you can support yourself. But if these churches can’t support themselves, then take the hint and quit using our poverty for your direct mail solicitations. We are a cash cow.”

Means called reservations open air concentration camps, and stated, “If you choose to stay on the reservation, you are guaranteed to be poor, unless you are part of the colonial apparatus set up by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, set up by the United States.”


Before he was diagnosed with cancer, Means cut off his trademark long braids as a gesture of mourning for his people.. In Lakota lore, he explained, the hair holds memories, and mourners often cut it to release those memories, and the people in them, to the spirit world.

Means often spoke bitterly of the way white men treat Mother Earth.  “Mother Earth has been abused, the powers have been abused, and this cannot go on forever. No theory can alter that simple fact. Mother Earth will retaliate, the whole environment will retaliate, and the abusers will be eliminated. Things come full circle, back to where they started. That’s revolution.”

There are any number of video clips on YouTube featuring Russell Means speaking on issues dear to his heart.  At the end of his life, his main concern seemed to be the destruction and pollution of Mother Earth.  Rather than finding a way to work together with others, however, Means seemed to spend a lot of time in “scolding” mode, which tends to turn off the very people who need to listen.  In one video, a visibly angry Means was commenting on modern mainstream American culture.  “That isn’t really culture,” he said.  “They don’t have any culture.”   You can argue this point any way you wish, but one thing seems clear, Means was doing the very same thing that the original European settlers did hundreds of years ago: dissing another culture.  I can just hear the Europeans discussing the Natives: “They’re just savages.  They don’t have any culture!”  Isn’t that just about what Means was saying?

means book

Where White Men Fear to Tread: The Autobiography of Russell Means (1995)

Means’ autobiography, Where White Men Fear to Tread:The Autobiography of Russell Means (written with Marvin J. Wolfe), came out in 1995, published by St. Martin’s Griffin, nearly 600 pages long.  One of the reviewers on the Goodreads site had something to say about the book, and I’m going to copy some of it here, because it corroborates some of my own feelings about Russell Means.

“He is so quick to label others as sellouts, phonies, liars, crooks, and thugs, and he seems to do it with no sense of irony when he is by his own account doing many of the same things,” wrote the reviewer.  Bingo.  That was exactly what I thought when I listened to some of the video clips on YouTube.  The sense of anger and bitterness really comes out in the videos, and apparently in the autobiography as well.  The reviewer continued.

“He complains about things that are awful the same way he complains about things that are really petty, like a newspaper not covering that they swept up a store after they looted it.

“Contrasting it with Vine Deloria, whom Means considers a friend, Deloria says a lot of harsh things about white people, but because he seems pretty meticulous in his research, and to be taking it all less personally, that helps me to not take it personally and focus on what he is saying. Perhaps that is the difference between someone who completes law school and someone who bums around for years, sometimes working, often partying, and always moving around.

“Reading Means is more like reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, except that with Malcolm there was a sense that he was cut off if the midst of change, and we don’t get to see how he would have turned out. With Means, he had a lot of time and opportunity, and he had some real gifts of intellect and charisma, and so there is this frustration that he could have been so much more. And he was a lot, I’m not denying that, but I still feel some loss. And yes, there is plenty to be bitter about, but bitterness just doesn’t help.”

That’s my problem with Means and others like him.  Bitterness just doesn’t help.

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Watch out for lightning…

In another review of Means’ autobiography, Mari Wadsworth of the Tucson Weekly wrote,”Critical readers do well to remain skeptical of any individual, however charismatic, who claims to be the voice of authority and authenticity for any population, let alone one as diverse as the native tribes of the Americas. But whatever conclusions one makes of Means’ actions and intentions, his unremitting presence and undaunted outspokeness opened a dialogue that changed the course of American history.”   I guess that just about sums it up.  Regardless of what anybody thinks of Russell Means, you have to admit he certainly did make his mark in life.  🙂


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