Remembering Russell Means: Good morning, graverobbersOctober 22, 2012
I heard this morning that Russell Means was dead. I met him once.
It was around 1985 or so, when I was a columnist for the Shreveport Journal, when I traveled to east Texas, to a small town that was hosting a festival themed to its putative Indian heritage. I don’t remember what the festival was called, only that it was something cheesy like “Pow Wow Days” and part of it involved speechifying by a chubby middle-aged mayor who donned a feathered war bonnet that made him look ridiculous. Sort of like this infamous 1927 photo of Calvin Coolidge wearing a Sioux headdress, though by comparison Coolidge is a model of dignity.
Anyway, as far as I could tell, the only person with any obvious aboriginal background was the guest speaker the mayor was slowly winding around to introducing: Russell Means, the Indian activist who was one of the leaders of the radical American Indian Movement (AIM) and played a large role in the movement’s occupation of Alcatraz in 1970 and the town of Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1973.
Means was an uncompromising, intimidating figure and it struck me as curious that he would show up at some podunk whoop-and-warpaint fest put on by a local of Chamber of Commerce. He didn’t seem the kind to suffer the sort of civic foolishness that usually attends mayors in native garb. That’s why I showed up; I wanted to hear what Means would say to the good — and unmistakably and overwhelmingly — white people who turned out to hear the “chief” (as the mayor called him) speak.
I don’t recall much of what Means said, but I can’t forget his laser gaze and even, devastating tone. I do remember he called those assembled “graverobbers,” and that he said the mayor’s blithe appropriation of the Sioux headdress went beyond mere offense to blasphemy. In short, he spent a good 40 minutes chewing everyone out.
Then he took his check, got in his rented car with his assistant and drove away.
Below find the Associated Press obituary:
By Dirk Lamers of the Associated Press
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Russell Means, a former American Indian Movement activist who helped lead the 1973 uprising at Wounded Knee, reveled in stirring up attention and appeared in several Hollywood films, has died. He was 72.
Means died early Monday at his ranch in in Porcupine, S.D., Oglala Sioux Tribe spokeswoman Donna Salomon said.
Means, a Wanblee native who grew up in the San Francisco area, announced in August 2011 that he had developed inoperable throat cancer. He told The Associated Press he was forgoing mainstream medical treatments in favor of traditional American Indian remedies and alternative treatments away from his home on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Means was an early leader of AIM and led its armed occupation of the South Dakota town of Wounded Knee, a 71-day siege that included several gunbattles with federal officers. He often was embroiled in controversy, partly because of AIM’s alleged involvement in the 1975 slaying of Annie Mae Aquash. But Means also was known for his role in the movie The Last of the Mohicans and had run unsuccessfully for the Libertarian nomination for president in 1988.
AIM was founded in the late 1960s to protest the U.S. government’s treatment of Native Americans and demand the government honor its treaties with Indian tribes. Means told the AP in 2011 that before AIM, there had been no advocate on a national or international scale for American Indians, and that Native Americans were ashamed of their heritage.
“No one except Hollywood stars and very rich Texans wore Indian jewelry,” Means said. “And there was a plethora of dozens if not hundreds of athletic teams that in essence were insulting us, from grade schools to college. That’s all changed.”
The movement eventually faded away, the result of Native Americans becoming self-aware and self-determined, Means said.
Paul DeMain, publisher of Indian Country Today, said there were plenty of Indian activists before AIM but that the group became the “radical media gorilla.”
“If someone needed help, you called on the American Indian Movement and they showed up and caused all kind of ruckus and looked beautiful on a 20-minute clip on TV that night,” DeMain said.
Means said he felt his most important accomplishment was the founding of the Republic of Lakotah and the “re-establishment of our freedom to be responsible” as a sovereign nation inside the borders of the United States. His efforts to have his proposed country recognized by the international community continued at the United Nations, he said, even as it was ignored by tribal governments closer to home, including his own Oglala Sioux Tribe.
But others may remember him for his former organization’s connection to Aquash’s slaying. Her death remains synonymous with AIM and its often-violent clashes with federal agents in the 1970s.
Authorities believe three AIM members shot and killed Aquash on the Pine Ridge reservation on the orders of someone in AIM’s leadership because they suspected she was an FBI informant. Two activists — Arlo Looking Cloud and John Graham — both were eventually convicted of murder. The third never has been charged.
Means blamed Vernon Bellecourt, another AIM leader, for ordering Aquash’s killing. Bellecourt denied the allegations in a 2004 interview, four years before he died.
DeMain, an Indian journalist who researched the case, said AIM’s leaders know who ordered Aquash’s killing but have covered up the truth for decades.
Also in 1975, murder charges were filed against Means and Dick Marshall, an AIM member, in the shooting death of Martin Montileaux of Kyle at the Longbranch Saloon in Scenic. Marshall served 24 years in prison. Means was acquitted.
In addition to his presidential bid, Means also briefly served as a vice presidential candidate in 1984, joining the Larry Flynt ticket during the Hustler magazine publisher’s unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination.
But Means always considered himself a Libertarian and couldn’t believe that anyone would want to call themselves either a Republican or a Democrat.
“It’s just unconscionable that America has become so stupid,” he said.
His acting career began in 1992 when he portrayed Chingachgook alongside Daniel Day-Lewis’ Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans. He also appeared in the 1994 film Natural Born Killers, voiced Chief Powhatan in the 1995 animated film Pocahontas and guest starred in 2004 on the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Means recounted his life in the book Where White Men Fear to Tread. He said he pulled no punches in his autobiography, admitting to his frailties and evils but also acknowledging his successes.
“I tell the truth, and I expose myself as a weak, misguided, misdirected, dysfunctional human being I used to be,” he said.
Means death came a day after former U.S. Sen. George McGovern died in Sioux Falls at the age of 90. McGovern had traveled to Wounded Knee with U.S. Sen. James Abourezk during the 71-day takeover to try to negotiate an end.
“I’ve lost two good friends in a matter of two to three days,” Abourezk said Monday morning. “I don’t pretend to understand it.”
Associated Press writer Kristi Eaton contributed to this report.