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Russell Means rides again

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Russell Means, always-controversial icon of indigenous militancy, immortalized by Andy Warhol and driven by his own relentless spirit, is the man of the hour in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, his home reservation. The famous Oglala activist is running ahead of the pack for tribal president. After being cheated out of the office in a fraudulent election in 1974, Means is back in the saddle. The scuttlebutt on the territory is that the controversial and much-maligned early American Indian Movement leader is popular enough these days to win the election.

Most Americans know Russell Means as the stoic father chief in "Last of the Mohicans." (He has also appeared in "Natural Born Killers" and several other motion pictures.) American Indians know Means as the volatile, gutsy, sometimes brilliant and often exasperatingly contradictory leader who helped crystallize the Wounded Knee occupation in 1973 into a widespread Red Power movement. They also know him as a media star who has too many times seemed to be off on his own tangent.

Shot through several times, stabbed in the chest during a stint in prison, once sought in a brutal killing, this main protagonist of the 1970s Indian wars has cut to the chase of reservation issues with his campaign pledge of distributing per capita payments to tribal members directly from the profits of the Oglala's Prairie Wind Casino. This is apparently a very popular position for the noted actor's TREATY Party. But Means has also been talking up organic agriculture, about inviting manufacturing firms and of using his notoriety and broad range of contacts to help tackle problems on the large, economically destitute Pine Ridge Reservation.

He was always charismatic, radical and blunt. During the siege at Wounded Knee in 1973, the traditional Oglalas depended on him greatly; he stood out as a post of strength during very ugly days. Means is known as one who did not cut and run and who consistently faced intense violence and antagonism from both the federal agencies and the organized goon squads that operated, with much FBI complicity, during those years. Particularly targeted, along with Dennis Banks, as a leader of the Wounded Knee occupation, Means successfully turned the tables on his prosecutors, leading the judge in the case to severely tongue-lash the FBI for manipulating witnesses and tainting evidence. Both Means and Banks were exonerated of government charges in that trial and Means' reputation grew as someone who could not be beaten. Later, however, as confrontation turned to community development and the generation of community programs and projects became a quiet, day-to-day struggle, Means was less involved, pursuing his own career in the public eye and becoming embroiled in nasty intra-AIM fights that alienated a good portion of AIM's sympathetic public. There were many wasted opportunities during those years.

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For better or worse Means was always an Indian leader capable of harnessing the national and international media. In the 1980s, many questioned his loud support for the Reagan-financed Contra War in Nicaragua, even as the Sandinista war on Miskito Indian villages that he opposed was undeniably repressive and brutal. Means' position did not at all square with that of his own initiative, the International Indian Treaty Council, causing all kinds of discord, but he carried on.

Most recently, many have questioned his defiance of Navajo Nation sovereignty and criminal jurisdiction in an assault case on the Navajo reservation. In December 1997 Means was charged with one count of "threatening" and two counts of "battery" involving a dispute with his in-laws on the Navajo Nation. Means argued that the Navajo Nation held no jurisdiction over him, based on the result established in Duro v. Reina, 495 U.S. 676 (1990). The Supreme Court's determination in Duro found that criminal jurisdiction of a tribe extended only to members of that tribe. The ruling caused consternation among tribal leaders throughout Indian country as it severely diminished their inherent law enforcement powers and authorities.

In response to what was seen as an erroneous ruling, the Duro decision was mitigated when Congress amended the Indian Civil Rights Act by affirming that a tribe's criminal jurisdiction extends over all Indians. The inherent rights that Indian governments have always maintained were recognized by this congressional correction. However, as a prospective tribal president, it seemingly places Means more in line with proponents of the recent disastrous Supreme Court ruling in Nevada v. Hicks than it does with determined American Indian leadership fighting to uphold Indian sovereignty. In Hicks the Court ruled that the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribal Court did not have jurisdiction over a state game warden who when on Indian country land violated the civil rights and damaged the property of a tribal member. This is the side of Means - contrary, individualistic - that makes many question his ultimate objectives and potentials.

Thus many will moan while many will cheer the reemergence of Russell Means on national Native political circuits. It is up to the Oglala people if they will again sanction the AIM activist as a tribal leader and vote him in as their tribal president. Many say this will be his rightful turn after being denied the 1974 election, which the U.S. Civil Rights Commission found to be fraudulent by at least one third of the votes. Supporters claim that a more mature, more diplomatic Russell Means can do some good for his people at this time.

Nearly 30 years have passed since the turbulent early Red Power Movement that Means symbolized. Returning to one's community to work for the people is always commendable. However, it will be important to remember that, most of all, the people of Pine Ridge need effective forward progress. Charismatic leaders have come and gone. The people need a visible improvement in their economic and social conditions; they need a progress that can give hope to the new generations. A great people, resilient and tough, the Oglala deserve sincere, pragmatic and dedicated leadership. Come Election Day they will decide whether Russell Means possesses those qualifications.