Russell Means (born 1939) led the American Indian Movement (AIM) in a 1973 armed seizure of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, site of the previous massacre of Sioux by Seventh U.S. Cavalry troops on December 29, 1890. With co-leaders Dennis Banks and Leonard Peltier, Means and AIM held off hundreds of federal agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation for seventy-one days before their surrender.
Russell C. Means has been an outspoken Indian rights activist for more than two decades. The organizer of numerous protests against the U.S. government's treatment of Native Americans and a major figure in the American Indian Movement (AIM), Means is perhaps best known for leading a 71-day siege at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, which drew national attention to Indian-rights issues in the early 1970s. The head of the American Indian Anti-Defamation League since 1988, Means continues to fight for the unique identity and independence of Native Americans.
Russell Charles Means, who would use the traditional term "Lakota" rather than the term "Sioux", which he views as a derogatory white word, was born November 10, 1939, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the oldest son of Harold ("Hank") Means, a mixed-blood Oglala Sioux and Theodora (Feather) Means, a full-blood Yankton Sioux. He attended the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) school on the reservation and later public schools in Vallejo, California. During his high school years, he transferred from the racially mixed Vallejo school to the almost all-white San Leandro High School where he experienced daily ethnic taunting. Not knowing how else to respond, Means at first fought back and then retreated into drugs and delinquency. After barely graduating from high school, he worked through various jobs and attended five colleges without graduating. He spent much of the 1960s drifting throughout the west, working as a cowboy, day laborer, and at an advertising firm. In 1969 he moved from a position on the Rosebud Sioux tribal council on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota to the directorship of the government-funded American Indian Center in Cleveland, Ohio.
In Cleveland Means met Dennis Banks, one of the cofounders of the newly organized American Indian Movement, a militant Indian civil rights group. Inspired by Banks and his movement, he set up AIM's second chapter in Cleveland. Means became a national media figure representing dissident Indians on Thanksgiving Day in 1970 when he and a small group of other Indians confronted costumed "Pilgrims" on the Mayflower II in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Dressed in combination western and Indian style, he became an effective symbol for AIM. Eloquent and charismatic, he inspired support from local Indian people while his inflammatory statements riled non-Indians.
That same year, Means participated in a prayer vigil on Mount Rushmore, a symbolic demonstration of Lakota claims to Black Hills land. His next protest was to file a $9 million dollar lawsuit against the Cleveland Indians baseball club for use of Chief Wahoo as a mascot, asserting in the suit that the symbol demeaned Native Americans. This latter action provoked Cleveland ball club fans, and led to Means's decision to resign his position at the Cleveland Center in 1972. He returned to South Dakota and participated in further activities intended to bring attention to Indian rights.
In February, 1972, Means led 1,300 angry Indians into the small town of Gordon, Nebraska, to protest the suspicious death of Raymond Yellow Thunder. The demonstration convinced town authorities to conduct a second autopsy, which eventually led to the indictment of two white townsmen for manslaughter. The Indian protest gained further success when the city council suspended a police officer accused of molesting jailed Indian women and then organized a multiracial human rights council. Violence against Indians increased all over the country that summer, leading to further defensiveness among local Indian people who felt they needed to arm themselves if they were to be the targets of murderous attacks.
At the annual Rosebud Sun Dance celebration, Means helped plan a mass demonstration to occur in Washington D.C. during election week of 1972. He urged a march to demand a federal law that would make it a crime to kill an Indian, even if it had to be added as an amendment to the Endangered Species Act. A series of cross-country caravans called "The Trail of Broken Treaties" arrived in Washington November 2 only to find that the adequate housing promised by the Department of the Interior was in fact crowded and rodent-infested. Feeling that the government officials sent out to investigate were officious and patronizing, Means then led the group to the Bureau of Indian Affairs where they successfully seized the offices and renamed the building the Native American Embassy. On Novembe…U.S. District Court Judge ordered the group's forcible eviction. Angry and frustrated, the Indians destroyed furniture and equipment and removed files they felt exploited Indian people. The next day the group agreed to leave the building peaceably after government officials promised to investigate federal programs affecting Indians and to consider the issue of Indian self-government. The government also offered $66,000 to cover travel expenses.
Occupies Town of Historic Massacre
When Means returned to South Dakota, he learned that the president of the Oglala Tribal Council, Dick Wilson, had obtained a court order prohibiting members of AIM from attending public meetings on the reservation. Wilson, a conservative opposed to the extreme activities of AIM, received government support to increase his police force, and had Means arrested twice for challenging the court order. When a white man was charged for second degree manslaughter instead of murder for the stabbing death of an Indian man, Means was among the leaders of a protest through the town of Custer where court was held. He and nearly 80 others were arrested for rioting and arson. The internal tribal governance conflict escalated as traditional leaders requested AIM's help in getting rid of council president Wilson, whom some viewed as representative of Washington bureaucracy. On February 27, 1973, Means and a group of nearly 200 armed supporters occupied the community of Wounded Knee, the site of the 1890 massacre of some 350 Sioux men, women, and children by the U.S. military. Tensions mounted as heavily armed FBI agents and federal marshals surrounded the area. More than a month later, Means agreed to fly to Washington to negotiate an agreement to end the siege, but the government refused to negotiate until all arms were laid down. Means refused to the unconditional surrender and left the meeting. He was arrested and detained for the remainder of the siege when he announced his intention to return to Wounded Knee. On May 8, 1973, the remaining Indians surrendered when the government agreed to meet with tribal elders to begin an investigation into tribal government, which had been accused, under Wilson, of ignoring the tribal constitution, among other things. Highly publicized in the national media, the ten-week siege became known as "Wounded Knee II" and garnered the support of many white Americans, including several Hollywood personalities.
Means ran against Wilson in the 1974 election of tribal council president while under federal indictment for actions during the Wounded Knee occupation. He lost the election, receiving 1530 votes to Wilson's 1709, but claimed that his election results indicated strong support for AIM causes on the reservation. His trial opened on February 12, 1974, and continued until September 16, when U.S. District Court Judge Fred Nichol dismissed the charges against Means and Banks and denounced the prosecution's handling of the case, which had included the use of information obtained from a member Means's defense team by a paid FBI informant. When asked years later about the beneficial results of the Wounded Knee occupation, Means related a story of watching three little Indian boys playing, one pretending to be Banks, one pretending to be Means, and the third refusing to be Wilson. Means felt that the protests influenced the development of a different sense of Indian identity: that "government" Indians were considered traitors.
During the Wounded Knee occupation, Means was shot by a BIA officer. In the following six years, he survived four other shootings and was stabbed while serving a term in South Dakota's prison. These attempts on his life sent a message to other Indian people that they were not safe from violent attacks. In 1975 Means was indicted for a murder in a barroom brawl, but his attorney, William Kunstler, who had been one of the defense attorneys during the Wounded Knee trial, argued that the government had created such a climate of fear that Indians were armed in self-defense. The jury acquitted Means of the murder charge on August 6, 1976. He was convicted of riot charges relating to the 1973 Custer demonstration and served one month in jail. In November 1977, he served a term for rioting in a South Dakota state penitentiary.
Reclaims Indian Land at Yellow Thunder Camp
Russell Means was also among the group who occupied federal land at Yellow Thunder Camp. In April 1981, a group of Dakota AIM and traditional Lakota people established a camp on federal land in Victoria Creek Canyon, about twelve miles southwest of Rapid City, South Dakota. Named in honor of Raymond Yellow Thunder, the man murdered in Gordon, Nebraska, in 1972, the camp was established as the first step in reclaiming the Black Hills land for Lakota use. When the U.S. Forest Service denied a use permit for the camp, Means acted as a lay attorney in the complaint against the Forest Service for violating the American Indian Freedom of Religion Act of 1978. In 1985, Judge Donald O'Brien ruled in favor of the Indian camp, but a higher court overturned the decision.
After the Yellow Thunder trial, Means became involved in native rights issues in other countries, including supporting the cause of the Miskito Indians of Nicaragua. He has been associated politically with the Libertarian Party. In 1992, he turned actor, playing the role of Chingachgook in the movie The Last of the Mohicans. While on the set, Means served as liaison between Indian extras and the movie producers during a labor dispute. He claimed that he had not abandoned his role as activist. In an article in Entertainment Weekly, Means commented, "I have been asked whether my decision to act in The Last of the Mohicansmeans that I've abandoned my role as an activist. On the contrary, I see film as an extension of the path I've been on for the past 25 years—another avenue to eliminating racism."
In the spring of 1994, AIM cofounder Clyde Bellecourt accused Means of selling out the AIM cause by accepting a $35,000 settlement from the 1972 suit against the Cleveland Indians baseball organization. Means, who left the American Indian Movement in 1988, responded that his current organization, the American Indian Anti-Defamation League, would be filing another lawsuit against the ball club he never received any of the money.
Although Means generally detests writing as a European concept, he agreed to have his words published as a chapter in Marxism and Native Americans in order to communicate with a wider audience. He urged each American Indian to avoid becoming Europeanized, using traditional values to resist. He criticized the European intellectual traditions, including Christianity and capitalism, and accused the Europeans of despiritualizing the universe. He also warned that Marxism, as a European tradition, is also no solution for American Indians' problems. He concluded: "I am not a 'leader.' I am an Oglala Lakota patriot. That's all I want or need to be. And I am very comfortable with who I am."
In late 1995 Means published his autobiography Where White Men Fear to Tread: The Autobiography of Russell Means coincidentally with Native American Heritage Month. Not surprisingly the strident Means used the occasion to show his disdain for the notion of heritage month, which he finds "abhorrent," as he does the term "Native American." Means told Library Journal in a telephone interview that the term "Native American" is used to "…. describe all the prisoners of the U.S. government" and that the idea of a Native American Heritage Month is a "…. subterfuge to hide the ongoing daily genocide being practiced against my people by this United States of America." Since being recognized nationally for his reform movements and AIM activities Means had been approached numerous times to write an autobiography. At first he regarded such a proposals as "arrogant" but after undergoing treatment for alcoholism and his anger towards white America Means relented and came to believe that an autobiography would prove helpful and relevant to his cause by shedding light on the social reform movements of the turbulent Sixties and Seventies and helping to correct prevailing stereotypes of the American Indian.
The Washington Post has called Means the "…. biggest, baddest, meanest, angriest, most famous American Indian activist of the late 20th century." And Means was angry, angry at the White Man's "fascist government," the White Man's "economic exploitation," and the White Man's "despoiling of nature." Means was also angry at his own people, especially the women who would pull at his braids and tell him how "cute" they were. Means feeling his person had been violated by their actions would retaliate by pawing at their breasts while saying "Oh how cute!" By coming to grip with his emotions and anger however Means has worked through his "defects" and has come to find " …peace of mind, the exhilaration of freedom, the bursting of bonds."
Means has also continued to be active on the Hollywood scene. His acclaimed role of Chingachgook in Last of the Mohicans was followed with his doing the voice of Chief Powhatan in Walt Disney's hit Pocahontas. He also has credits in Natural Born Killers, Wagons East, and Wind Runner. Means is also planning a school at Pine Ridge to be called the University of the Universe and will teach Lakota culture as does his Yellow Thunder Camp in the Black Hills. Means hopes that through these spiritual youth camps he will leave a legacy of "self-dignity and self-pride" amongst his people.
Further Reading on Russell Means
Means, Russell, Where White Men Fear to Tread: The Autobiography of Russell Means, St. Martin's Press, 1995.