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Russell Means: In Memoriam

A column by Steven Newcomb about Russell Means.

On October 22, 2012, at 4:44 a.m., Oglala Lakota leader Russell Means began his journey to the spirit world. He did so at his ranch in the town of Porcupine, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, in the Lakota Territory, or as he had declared it, “The Republic of Lakotah.” Right up to the time of his spirit journey, Russell received the prayerful and loving support of his wife Pearl, along with other family members and closest friends, such as Glenn Morris (Shawnee).

Russell Means was born on November 10, 1939, only 49 years after the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, where some 350 Oglala Lakota people, mostly women and children, were killed by the Seventh Cavalry of the United States Army. Wounded Knee was, of course, also the place of the 1973 armed stand-off with the United States for 71 days by traditional Oglala Lakota people, activists of the American Indian Movement (founded by George Mitchell and Dennis Banks) and other supporters.

Russell participated in the occupation of Wounded Knee when he was 34 years old. The event captured international attention and placed a global focus on the dire conditions of Indian nations and peoples at that time. 1973 was 83 years after the Wounded Knee Massacre, or the single life span of an Elder, which tells us how recently those events of the past took place.

Russell left behind him the powerful legacy of a lifelong, unceasing, and heartfelt commitment to his Oglala Lakota Nation and people, and to all Indian nations and peoples. He believed in and fought for the right of the Oglala Lakota people to live an independent existence in their own traditional territory, free from the colonial yoke of the United States.

As was true of great Indian leaders of the past, such as Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, Russell was controversial, and, at times, not well understood. Russell had a natural gift for publicizing Indian issues during the early days of the American Indian Movement, starting in the 1960s. In a highly vocal way, he stood up and said “no” to the oppression of Indian people.

On one occasion, after Wesley Bad Heart Bull was murdered, and his white killers let off with only a slap on the hand, Russell and other outraged Indian people stood up and protested in Custer, South Dakota. When the Indian people converged on the courthouse, they were outnumbered four-to-one by police. They battled the police, and burned the courthouse. Photos in the news showed a bloody Russell being led away in handcuffs; what the photos did not show was beating that the police took that day. Those were bitter times.

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In the early 1970’s, Russell was among 32 Oglala men whose names Chief Fools Crow took to the traditional Oglala people, who agreed that they should be chosen as itacan (traditional headmen). Prior to Russell Means’s spirit journey, he and Birgil Kills Straight were the two remaining Itacan.

In 1974, Russell participated at the gathering at Standing Rock Indian Reservation that issued the Declaration of Continuing Independence, which expressed the right to live free and independent of colonization. Afterward, Russell was mandated by the elders to start the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC), the first Category II Indigenous NGO at the UN. He was made a permanent trustee, a title that he held until his death. Obviously many other people were involved as well, but the principles expressed in the Declaration of Continuing Independence and the formation of the IITC was a major part of the beginning of international work at the United Nations, which eventually resulted in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of September 13, 2007.

Most people think of Russell Means in terms of his activism, or his movie career, but, in my view, what was truly remarkable about Russell was his commitment to the Sun Dance and Oglala Lakota ceremonial life. He would Sun Dance every year with close friends. He placed the highest value on being able to carry on the ceremonial life of his ancestors, knowing that the United States government had unsuccessfully attempted to destroy those ceremonies through racist policies such as the Court of Indian Offenses, and the U.S. government and church-run boarding schools.

In so many ways, Russell Means’ life is emblematic of a generation of American Indian people who have been trying to come to terms with the dominating legacy of colonialism and how to heal and recover from that destructiveness. He lived a rich and varied life in that regard, and at times he faced many human challenges in his personal life, like so many of us do in Indian Country.

The original Chief Bigfoot Memorial Ride, first organized by three Oglala men—Birgil Kills Straight, Alex White Plume, and Eugenio White Hawk—took place each year from 1986 to 1990. The ride was some 125 miles long, and was undertaken in honor of 420 Lakota people killed in the year 1890, most of them at the Wounded Knee massacre. In 1990, Russell rode horseback on that 100 year commemorative Ride, in harsh and grueling winter conditions.

It was fitting that many horseback riders, including family members and some Bigfoot Riders, provided an escort of Russell’s ashes to Little Wound School in the town of Kyle on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Russell’s horse was saddled and riderless. At the Little Wound School auditorium, his life was honored by the Oglala Lakota people, and grieving family and friends. Four days after he began his spirit-journey, at 4:44 a.m., Russells’ ashes were released in a ceremonial manner at Yellow Thunder Camp in the Black Hills. At that precise moment, as his Lakota name was called out, a shooting star streaked across the sky.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (2008), and the Indigenous and Kumeyaay Research Coordinator for the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation.