Monday, October 22, 2012

RIP, Russell Means: A Great Loss to the American Indian Community

This morning, Native American activist Russell Means died of esophageal cancer at his ranch in Porcupine, South Dakota. He was 72. Russell is survived by his fifth wife, Pearl, and ten children. My prayers are with his family & friends.

Russell Charles Means was born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation on November 10, 1939, a member of the Oglala Sioux Nation. He was baptized Oyate Wacinyapin (Works For the People).

When Russell was a toddler, his family moved to San Francisco to escape the crippling poverty of Pine Ridge. Russell described his childhood as "harsh." His father was an alcoholic, and Russell's teen years were marked by difficulties in school, with drugs and occasionally with the law.

The turning point for his life came in 1968, when he joined AIM (the American Indian Movement). He thrived and quickly became a prominent member, becoming well-known in the era of the Civil Rights Movement. Russell became estranged from AIM in the early 90's.

Throughout his life, Russell was politically active at Pine Ridge, working at both the state and national level. He also worked extensively with the international Indigenous population, most notably helping groups in Central & South American gain recognition of their rights from the United Nations.

Russell was, by all accounts, a tireless advocate for Native Americans. His work was extensive, but he is probably best known for the famous Wounded Knee uprising. On February 27, 1973, around 200 Oglala Sioux and AIM members seized & occupied the symbolically-important town of Wounded Knee, which is located on Pine Ridge, in an effort to impeach then-Tribal Chief Richard Wilson. Wilson was accused of widespread fraud, corruption and abuse of his opponents. The uprising also protested the US government's failure to uphold its treaties with American Indian peoples. Wounded Knee was occupied for 71 days; shootings between the occupiers and FBI resulted in the deaths of 1 agent and 2 Native Americans, as well as the disappearance of civil rights activist Ray Robinson and extensive damage to homes in the area. The uprising attracted the attention of media and inspired Natives throughout the country. In 1974, Russell Means and AIM co-founder Dennis Banks were charged in connection with the uprising; the charges were later thrown out by the judge on the grounds of governmental misconduct.

In addition to his many years of steadfast activism, Russell was a well-known actor who appeared in such movies as "The Last of the Mohicans," "Thomas & the Magic Railroad" and "Natural Born Killers." He served as the voice of Chief Powhatan in Disney's "Pocahontas" and "Pocahontas II: Journey To a New World." On the small screen, he could be seen in roles on a number of programs including "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Walker, Texas Ranger" and "Into the West." His final two roles will be seen in 2013, in the film "Winnetou: The Beginning" and a as-yet-unnamed project by Christian Camarago.

Russell Means also released a CD of music called "Electric Warrior" on the indie label SOAR. The CD includes the song "Wounded Knee Set Us Free."

Russell twice ran for national office. He unsuccessfully ran for the Libertarian presidential nomination in 1988 and briefly served as Larry Flynt's vice presidential choice in an unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination in 1984. Russell considered himself a Libertarian and supported independent Ralph Nader in his 2004 and 2008 presidential bids. In January 2012, he announced his support of Ron Paul.

Russell's autobiography, "Where White Men Fear To Tread," was published in 1996. In it, he famously said: "Indian people are dying of sympathy. What we want is respect." That statement, in this blogger's opinion, quite succinctly describes Russell's views to a tee.

Like all of us, Russell was not a perfect man. There were controversies surrounding him in the 1970's (which mainstream media has made quite an issue of today but this blogger will not.) He struggled with alcoholism, rocky marriages, a suicide attempt and his famous temper. At the 40th anniversary celebration of the Wounded Knee uprising, he responded to an unfavorable question by snapping, "You people who want to continue to put AIM in this certain pocket of illegality, I can't stand you people. I wish I was a little bit healthier and a little bit younger, because I would do more than talk."

Russell told the AP in 2011 that before AIM, there was no national or international advocate for Indigenous Americans. Many were ashamed of their ancestry. Insulting and demeaning mascots/team names were commonplace. "All that has changed," he said.

Yet he knew the work was not done, and never shied away from the opportunity to further that work: for us to be self-determined, proud of where we come from and confident of where we're going.

In his book, Russell said, "I expose myself as a weak, misguided, misdirected, dysfunctional human bring I used to be." This was typical of Russell, who prided himself on his blunt honesty and take-no-prisoners personality. No one was exempt from that blunt honesty, even (some would say especially) himself. I have found myself aspiring to that attitude in my own life, and I know I have, in some part, a debt to him for it.

How many of us today are proud of who we are, unafraid to face our needs and shortcomings, willing to fight for our future and against those who seek to oppress us...because of the work of those like Dennis Banks and Russell Means?

I count myself among them. It is an honor and a privilege.

Rest in peace and walk with the ancestors in the warm embrace of the Creator, Russell. You are gone, but you will not be forgotten. Aho!

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