Voices: Russell Means (1939-2012)


- Russell Means, May 2011.

One thing about Russell I always remembered, and I think someone else once said it, you may have loved him, or you may have disliked him, but you couldn’t ignore him. I’ll always remember when an elder said one time, I was at a ceremony and I asked what this half shaped moon circle on the ground meant, and he said it was a symbol of the circle of life, the never ending of the circle of life, and I said there is only half a circle, and he said the other half was unseen, it is the spirit world. For Indian people it never ends, we don’t have a linear existence, so I know I will see Russell again, and I take comfort in that thought. For men like Russell Means don’t come along in a lifetime very often. He was truly an inspiration for all of us younger guys at the time.
- Leonald Peltier, via Aboriginal Press News

Testifying before the U.S. Senate, 1989. Image via The Christian Science Monitor.

He rose to national attention as a leader of the American Indian Movement in 1970 by directing a band of Indian protesters who seized the Mayflower II ship replica at Plymouth, Mass., on Thanksgiving Day. The boisterous confrontation between Indians and costumed “Pilgrims” attracted network television coverage and made Mr. Means an overnight hero to dissident Indians and sympathetic whites.

Later, he orchestrated an Indian prayer vigil atop the federal monument of sculptured presidential heads at Mount Rushmore, S.D., to dramatize Lakota claims to Black Hills land. In 1972, he organized cross-country caravans converging on Washington to protest a century of broken treaties, and led an occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He also attacked the “Chief Wahoo” mascot of the Cleveland Indians baseball team, a toothy Indian caricature that he called racist and demeaning. It is still used.

And in a 1973 protest covered by the national news media for months, he led hundreds of Indians and white sympathizers in an occupation of Wounded Knee, S.D., site of the 1890 massacre of some 350 Lakota men, women and children in the last major conflict of the American Indian wars. The protesters demanded strict federal adherence to old Indian treaties, and an end to what they called corrupt tribal governments.
- Robert D. McFadden, New York Times

The charismatic Means quickly became one of the most prominent faces of the movement, partly through his role in such public protests as the 1970 takeover of the Mayflower II and the 1972 occupation of the Washington, D.C. offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 1973, he served as spokesman for the AIM members who occupied Wounded Knee during a 71-day standoff with federal authorities. His actions attracted the attention of actors like Marlon Brando who, after consulting with Means, famously demonstrated his support for Means’ cause by having Sacheen Littlefeather refuse his Oscar for “The Godfather.”
- Phil Dyess-Nugent, The AV Club


- Chase Iron Eyes, Last Real Indians

My culture, the Lakota culture, has an oral tradition, so I ordinarily reject writing. It is one of the white world’s ways of destroying the cultures of non-European peoples, the imposing of an abstraction over the spoken relationship of a people.

So what you read here is not what I’ve written. It’s what I’ve said and someone else has written down. I will allow this because it seems that the only way to communicate with the white world is through the dead, dry leaves of a book. I don’t really care whether my words reach whites or not. They have already demonstrated through their history that they cannot hear, cannot see; they can only read (of course, there are exceptions, but the exceptions only prove the rule).

I’m more concerned with American Indian people, students and others, who have begun to be absorbed into the white world through universities and other institutions. But even then it’s a marginal sort of concern. It’s very possible to grow into a red face with a white mind; and if that’s a person’s individual choice, so be it, but I have no use for them. This is part of the process of cultural genocide being waged by Europeans against American Indian peoples today.

My concern is with those American Indians who choose to resist this genocide, but who may be confused as to how to proceed. (You notice I use the term American Indian rather than Native American or Native indigenous people or Amerindian when referring to my people. There has been some controversy about such terms, and frankly, at this point, I find it absurd. Primarily it seems that American Indian is being rejected as European in origin—which is true. But all the above terms are European in origin; the only non-European way is to speak of Lakota—or, more precisely, of Oglala, Bruleě, etc.—and of the Dine, the Miccosukee, and all the rest of the several hundred correct tribal names.
- Russell Means, speech at the Black Hills International Survival Gathering on the Pine Ridge Reservation, 1980. (Via Mother Jones)

Means (L) at American Indian Movement press conference in Costa Rica, 1985. Via American Indian Movement.

Word of your travels comes with great sorrow,

A warrior returned home while we wait the morrow.

You stood for our rights when they were threatened.

Our traditions when they were smothered.

Our people…in fact, you stood for all.

No words to describe the gift you’ve given.

No words for the story you’ve written.

We will not wait idly by,

We will not stand and cry.

Your body may be gone, but you still live on.

Your voice may be silent, but your yell is still strong.

We hear you brother …

We will continue to fight…to survive…

We will continue to thrive.

Lila wopila kola, toksa ake.
- @PygmySioux, via Red Road Rising

Appearing alongside Daniel Day-Lewis in “The Last Of The Mohicans,” 1992. Image via anomalousmaterial.com

Hello our relatives. Our dad and husband, now walks among our ancestors. He began his journey to the spirit world at 4:44 am, with the Morning Star, at his home and ranch in Porcupine. There will be four opportunities for the people to honor his life to be announced at a later date. Thank you for your prayers and continued support. We love you. As our dad and husband would always say, “May the Great Mystery continue to guide and protect the paths of you and your loved ones.”

- Statement from Russell Means’ family, Russell Means Freedom