October 10, 2011
As I look back on my life from the pinnacle of the seventh decade my reflections turn to the life of Russell Means. He is suffering from incurable cancer.
Americans have short memories. A few weeks ago while visiting some Native Americans students at Central High School in Rapid City I asked simply, “Who is Russell Means?” Every one of them, if they knew him at all, said he was an Indian actor. That would be somewhat understandable because I don’t know how much of contemporary Indian issues are taught in history classes today on and off of the Indian reservations.
For those reading this column today let me just say that Russell Means to me can best be described in a quote by Winston Churchill who said in 1939 when attempting to describe Russia, “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in mystery, inside of an enigma; but perhaps that is the key.”
In the 1970s most of us (Native Americans) could not forecast the actions of Russell Means. He was, indeed, “a riddle wrapped in an enigma” as the famous quote is often misconstrued.
Means came along when the police in Minneapolis were committing acts of brutality against American Indians. He came along when all of the terms of the many treaties signed between the United States and the Indian Nations were being grossly violated. He saw the unfairness and the hypocrisy in American politics and set out to change it.
In 1976 while the United States was celebrating its 200th birthday, Means looked at the Mount Rushmore National Memorial through the eyes of an oppressed people and labeled it “The Shrine of Hypocrisy.” He added, “And I intend to blow out the candles on America’s birthday cake.”
Along with Dennis Banks and Vernon and Clyde Bellecourt, Means co-founded the American Indian Movement. They began their adventures by tailing the police cars in Minneapolis armed with cameras and watching for any sign of the outrageous actions that police department was inflicting upon Native Americans. The Movement soon caught the eye of Native Americans everywhere and AIM became the point-man for the feelings of us all.
But somewhere along the way the Movement turned to violence beginning with its November 1972 takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D. C. where irreplaceable and valuable records vital to the lives of so many Native Americans were trashed and destroyed.
Several more acts of violence ensued over the coming years including the takeover, trashing and murders that took place inside of the occupied buildings at Wounded Knee. I, along with many other Native Americans lost heart and faith in AIM after that, but I still held a deep admiration for Russell Means through it all because I believe his intentions were genuine, but somehow his followers just got out of hand. AIM really had no credentials for membership and it attracted a wild assortment of members seeking thrills more than social justice along with those who sincerely believed in its goals. It also attracted several FBI informants which eventually led to the murder of Anna Mae Pictou Aquash near Wanblee, South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation when the AIM leadership suspected her of being such an informant.
Like the enigma he was, Means often went from the practical to the ridiculous, but he always held the courage of his convictions. He sincerely believed that it was his goal in life to crush the bureaucracy that covertly impoverished and attempted to annihilate the cultures of his people.
I was sad to hear that Means had contracted terminal cancer. It struck at his throat from which many of the eloquent statements he made against the establishment were born. Many years ago Chief Fools Crow of the Oglala said of Russell Means and of me, “When we look at our future we have to look to Lakota like Russell Means and Tim Giago.” It was probably the first and last time anyone ever spoke of Russell and me in the same breath.
Means is still fighting for the cause he envisioned as am I. He has never mellowed in his fervent pursuit of equality and justice, but in his later years his focus appeared to be more geared to attaining those goals in a more peaceful manner.
I hope he is cured of this illness which he says was never an illness found in Native Americans until the coming of the white man. He is an unequivocal fighter and his belief in the pure healing of Native medicine may prevail. He is refusing all medical treatment other than Native healing.
If he is healed and decides to run for the presidency of the Oglala Sioux Tribe again, I will be his biggest cheerleader and supporter because the Lakota need a leader with vision and courage. Get well please, Mr. Means.
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is President of Unity South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1990. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. He was the founder of The Lakota Times, Indian Country Today, Lakota Journal and Native Sun News. He can be reached at