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Vincent Schilling
Indian Country Today

Water protectors from all over Turtle Island converged six years ago at the center of the unceded territories of Standing Rock Sioux land as outlined in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. The Dakota Access Pipeline was slated to traverse the lands near the Missouri River and go through sacred burial grounds along the area in Cannonball, North Dakota.

As tensions between the water protectors and North Dakota authorities grew, Nataanii Means stood at the front lines of the action, with an independent film production company at the center of the action, and Nataanii interacted with the National Guard and local law enforcement. As the tensions hit their peak, Nataanii was pulled into the center of the scuffle.

Nataanii Means at the center of Standing Rock interactions with the militarized police force. (Screen capture courtesy Unicorn Riot)

He was shot with rubber bullets and, according to Nataanii, when he was off-camera, “They beat the hell out of me. They completely bloodied my face,” Nataanii told Indian Country Today.

The hip-hop artist shared his experiences with the students at Norfolk State University, a historically Black university in Virginia, for Native American Heritage Month. 

Oglala Lakota, Omaha and Navajo hip-hop artist Nataanii Means shares his experiences at Standing Rock with students and professors at Norfolk State University. (Photo Vincent Schilling, Indian Country Today)

He also performed a few songs and talked about his experiences as a musician and the son of one of Indian Country’s most prominent American Indian activists, Russell Means.

Video: Nataanii Means performs "Warrior"

“I really enjoyed being at Norfolk State University. When I shared, I experienced finding a common ground as two ethnicities, but there was also the fact that we have and are going through the same struggles,” Nataanii said. 

“As Indian people who are praying to ancestors, It felt good to talk about that and I looked at everyone’s faces when I was sharing and I saw recognition for what we all shared as well. The students seemed to recognize that connection and what it felt like for their ancestors too. It felt good to connect, and even though we come from two different cultures, we have come together with hip hop music, which started with Black and Puerto Rican artists in the Bronx.”

So the fact we were able to enjoy some music and conversation about our struggles, we saw that were are all not so different,” Nataanii said. “It was very positive. It was very awesome. So I'm looking forward to coming back.”

Oglala Lakota, Omaha and Navajo hip-hop artist Nataanii Means poses with students after a performance at Norfolk State University. (Photo Vincent Schilling, Indian Country Today)
Retired NSU professor Wanda Brockington, Oglala Lakota, Omaha and Navajo hip hop artist Nataanii Means, and Cathy M. Jackson, Ph.D. Associate Professor of the Mass Communications and Journalism Department at NSU. (Photo: Vincent Schilling, Indian Country Today)

The trauma after Standing Rock

In the months and years that followed after Nataanii’s time at the Oceti Sakowin Camp, he shared just how much he struggled with post-traumatic stress after being subjected to violence by police, as well as arrested, placed and held in dog kennels, stripped and had numbers on his arm to identify him.

Nataanii said he went to ceremony, which helped — but there were multiple occasions he began to experience extreme anxiety and panic attacks.

“I went home to Pine Ridge and started doing my ceremonies for PTSD cleaning off and wiping off. And that helped a lot, but I was getting panic attacks constantly. I felt moments of doom, like, I’m going to die or have a heart attack, my chest would tighten up and something was wrong like I couldn’t take a full breath,” he said. “There was one time where I had this from a flight in Minneapolis all the way to Iceland. It was horrible.”

The anxiety and stress continued to trouble him. When the stress became too much, he would sometimes drive to a hospital and sit in the parking lot as a way to help him feel in control.

Thinking back to the support of his father Russell Means, he decided to seek help.

“My dad always encouraged all of us to go to treatment for any issues we might need to address.”

Nataanii eventually decided to seek to address his mental stress at Indian Health Services. He met a kind older woman and therapist that helped to address his stresses.

“I decided to go to behavioral health and met with a very nice old lady. She said she would just be a person to listen to me. She also gave me a list of ten questions to see if I had experienced trauma,” he said.

He had answered seven out of the ten trauma questions they provided to him with yes.

“The lady told me, ‘it's normal for Natives to get seven to 10 of the questions on here right. With White kids, they maybe answer yes to one or two. But even so, she told me it wasn’t normal for me to experience all I had experienced,” he said.

After dedicating himself to practicing his own self-care, Nataanii began to improve emotionally and mentally. He even began to think of new music and a new album.

I’m the son of Russell Means

After Nataanii performed at Norfolk State University, we sat and talked for a few hours before he would venture back to the hotel and fly out the following morning to Albuquerque. As a hip-hop artist that has performed all over the world, travel is a familiar routine for Nataanii, who had asked on arrival a few days prior as to what Native lands we resided on (Nansemond, Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia, and near to the Chickahominy, Rappahannock and Pamunkey tribes).

As we sat together at a restaurant, I asked surely was a familiar question to Nataanii, but I hadn’t heard it from him directly.

Vincent Schilling: Hey, Nataanii. I am sure you get asked this question often, but I still would like to know. How does it feel to be the son of Russell Means?

Nataanii Means:
Sure I have been asked this question. But you know, I like answering this question because I get to think about him. I get to see him in a good way. He was never untouchable, and he was never this thing people made him out to be. He was just dad. You know, like any kid, I was afraid of him, I would walk on eggshells around him, I would love to see him laugh, I would love to make him laugh. He was strict. To be able to go to places with him where he would speak, that’s when I got to see how people would see him. He was this larger-than-life person — and then afterward, we’d say, ok let’s go get some food and I got to be with him and I got to see his loving side.

That's the side that people didn't see. He was very loving and he was very giving and he loved to be with family. That's what it was like being his son, you know? He was a good father, even though we had to share him with the rest of the world.

Vincent Schilling:
Well, no one can wear a t-shirt with his face on it like you can.

Nataanii Means:
Yeah. (Laughs)

Nataanii also spoke about his father’s love for his family and guiding his children to do great things. Russell Means certainly had a positive effect on his children.

He shared how his brother Tatanka Means recently finished filming “Killers of the Flower Moon” with director Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro. His sister Tatewin Means is also doing “great work” with the Thunder Valley CDC as the executive director. “My sister Michele Means is dean of students for the Pine Ridge School District. Scott Means is working with the Hopi community, learning his traditions and ways. My sister Sheena is helping to provide the Native community with housing and my brother Hank is helping build homes, and my sister, Sherry is a teacher.”

“My whole family works to help the people in some sort of way. That makes me happy to look at it like that. We're all a different piece of my father, really. We're all a piece of him,” Nataanii said.

It’s time for new music. It’s time for ‘Growth’

Nataanii says things have been difficult over the past few years, but admittedly there is a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. He is eager to explore his own approach to his career as an artist, in some ways he says, he even seeks to possibly re-explore what he does, what he sees, and how he creates his music. He might even rebrand himself a bit just as any artist seeks to reach new levels of awareness and artistic creation.

“It's all about growth, you know? I take time in between my albums to live life and to experience life. So I have a new perspective on a new album. My first album was ‘Two Worlds,’ my second one was ‘Balance,’ and this one I am working on now is titled ‘Growth.’”

“It’s about a different place, a different mindset, you know? I'm older now. I feel like I'm wiser. I feel like I'm a better man for what I've been through. And after ‘Growth,’ comes out, I kind of want to reassess who I am, and bring a different level of passion for the music. I want to be able to hit another mark.”

He is aiming for the release to hit on his birthday on Jan. 8. And as a Native person and hip-hop artist, Nataanii assures Indian Country that there is a lot more to come.

“I'm always trying to top my last goal, my last show, my last tour and I just want to be able to breach another level of this industry.”

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