Russell Means: Standing Against Injustice
Gale Courey Toensing
At the height of the American Indian Movement in the mid-1970s, Russell Means traveled to Connecticut to support the late Golden Hill Paugussett Chief Aurelius Piper Sr. in his fight to protect the tribe’s half-acre reservation, which was being encroached upon by a non-Indian neighbor.
Some 40 years later, on one of the coldest days in January 2009, Means, the most famous American Indian in the world, again stood on the steps of the Legislative Office Building in Hartford, Connecticut, and gave a passionate speech condemning the state of Connecticut and the United States government for their unjust treatment of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation. Means, accompanied by his wife Pearl, had traveled from his Pine Ridge home to address a rally in support of the nation on the fifth anniversary of the Bureau of Indian Affair’s unprecedented reversal of the tribe’s federal acknowledgement.
“In the United States of America, they’ve refined genocide down to the stroke of a pen!” Means said. He exhorted the crowd of mostly indigenous people who came to the rally to stand up for their freedom and for justice. “If you want to be sovereign, act sovereign!” Means told the crowd. “John Mohawk said that in 1974 at the first International Indian Treaty Conference at the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation and I took it to heart.”
Russell Means, a legend in his own time, comes from a tradition of Lakota Sioux leaders that included Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. He was born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation on November 10, 1939, and passed into the spirit world at his Pine Ridge ranch on October 22, 2012, less than a month before his 73rd birthday. “Our dad and husband now walks among our ancestors,” the family said in a statement.
Means’ career spanned politics, acting, music and writing, but he is best known for his leadership in the American Indian Movement (AIM), an Indian rights organization that took direct action to assert the rights, sovereignty and dignity of American Indians in the 1960s and 1970s. Means captured national and international attention with AIM in 1973 when he led a 71-day armed takeover of the sacred ground at Wounded Knee, a small part of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota where the U.S. 7th Cavalry slaughtered and butchered an estimated 300 unarmed Lakota men, women and children on December 29, 1890.
Stories recalling Means’ extraordinary life as an activist are flooding the media and social networks: He participated in the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz. He took part in the 1970 prayer vigil on top of Mount Rushmore to “dramatize Lakota claims to Black Hills land,” as the New York Times put it. Also in 1970, he helped lead AIM’s Thanksgiving Day demonstration at Plymouth Rock where 200 American Indians seized the Mayflower, painted Plymouth Rock red and observed a day of mourning. Two years later, he participated in the Trail of Broken Treaties from California to Washington, D.C. (AIM was one of eight Indian organizations involved) and led the week-long occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to protest broken treaties. In December 2007, Means and a small group of Lakota Sioux announced the withdrawal from all treaties with the United States government and declared that the Republic of Lakotah is a sovereign nation with property rights over thousands of square miles in South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana—not coincidentally, lands including those acknowledged as the Sioux Nation’s territory in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie.
“There are some who say, ‘Well, if we don’t have our treaty, we have nothing,’” Means said on announcing the Republic of Lakotah. “To them, I say, look around you. You already have nothing! You experience the worst poverty, the worst health, the worst environmental problems, the worst of everything, plus they have stolen your territory, your freedom, and your self-respect. Wake up! What you wave around in the name of ‘sovereignty’ is no longer a treaty, it is a broken contract!”
As stories about Means’ life and reactions to his death flood the media, Robert Chanate highlighted a little-known aspect of Means’ activism: The most famous Indian in the world would go out of his way, literally, to lend his fame to help other Indigenous Peoples stand up for their rights and for justice wherever he was needed.
“Many words have been written and spoken about his highly publicized leadership roles during the Red Power era,” Chanate, a citizen of the Kiowa Nation, said. “This is important but just as significant was the little-known or unheralded actions Russell did to support Indigenous Peoples. Russell was one of a very small group of leaders who responded to many calls from Indigenous Peoples and arrived to help out in whichever way he could. From personal experience, I’ve witnessed Russell travel at his own expense to support a cause even when it was not something that he had a personal stake in. The compelling reason was often that a small group of Natives were attempting to stand up to some injustice and decided to reach out to Russell.”
That was exactly what propelled Means some 1,765 miles across the country and back on that frigid New England day more than three years ago to speak for an hour in support of the Schaghticoke Indians. “My intention is to do anything and everything that’s asked of me by the tribe,” he told Indian Country Todayat the time. “I intend to give support and continuous support and to give whatever directions the Schaghticoke want to listen to. I have a lot of experience up to and including tomorrow. I’ve been at this since 1967.”
Reached at the Schaghticoke reservation in Kent, Connecticut, Chief Richard Velky said he was deeply saddened at the news of Means’ passing. “The Schaghticoke Tribal Nation is sorry to learn of the passing of Russell Means, a true advocate for Native American rights. When the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation protested against the state officials in Hartford, Russell Means answered our call and marched alongside the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation so our voices could be heard across the country. He will be greatly missed and we pray for his resting peace on his final journey,” Velky told ICTMN.
In 1992 Means went to Alaska to help a group of indigenous women in their tribe’s struggle for indigenous fishing rights on the Kenai peninsula in the south central part of the state. On that occasion, Means didn’t wait to be called. “He called us,” said Mary Mills, a citizen of the Kenaitze Indian tribe, who is attending the National Congress of American Indians 69th Annual Convention in Sacrament, California where she told ICTMN her story. In 1992, members of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe began a series of fish-ins to assert their aboriginal subsistence fishing rights, Mills said. At that time, the Yakama Indians in Washington State were holding fish-ins and protests to secure their subsistence fishing rights—direct actions that inspired the Kenaitze Indians.
“That’s where we got the courage to do ours,” Mills said. “But they [government forces] were just brutal to a lot of the men in the south ’48. So we told our guys to just stay home, the women will do this, because our chances of getting beat up were less than theirs.”
So the Kenaitze women gathered their grandmas, moms and children and set a net. “We actually did it quite a few times. I was arrested six times for exercising my subsistence fishing rights. So Russell Means called and asked if he could come and support us and we said yes. So he came and the state of Alaska really over-reacted and sent the National Guard after us. It was a statewide fish-in and we had a lot of tribes from across Alaska that came to support us and Russell was there to support us. I have very fond memories of him. He was very supportive and we did special appearances that publicized our story all over the media.”
With Means backing them, the women asserted that the state did not have jurisdiction. Ultimately, all the cases against them were dismissed. “And Russell was a big part of it,” Mills said, then added, “Please offer Russell Means’ family and his tribe our sincerest condolences from the Kenaitze Indian Tribe and also on behalf of the subsistence fishing women of Kenai. He was wonderful, he was very wonderful and we appreciate his support.”
In a press release issued a day after his passing, the Means family said he was a self-described “Oglala Freedom Fighter.” He provides another self-description in an amazing hour-and-a-half video interview called “Welcome to the Reservation,” posted on the Republic of Lakotah website. “What I have to say about myself is I’ve been a prisoner and a thief. I’ve been a doper, a dope dealer. And I’ve also gone to college, I’m an accountant and a computer programmer, as well as getting my doctorate in philosophy. I’ve been everywhere in the strata of white society. I’ve even hung around with multi-millionaires when there were no billionaires. I am an Indian—an American Indian.”
No matter where he went or who he hung around, Means always remembered who he was, where his people came from and what he was fighting to regain. “Russell Means never gave up, and never forgot our original free existence as Indian nations and peoples,” ICTMN columnist Steve Newcomb said.
Watch Russell Means’ 2009 speech regarding the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation: