Conspiracy to be Free: A Political History of Russell Means
On October 22, 2012, Indian Country lost one of our most controversial and outspoken leaders. Shortly after the public announcement of Russell Means’ death, Internet chatter exploded with a fury of wall posts, tweets, memorials, and blogs. Most popular write-ups about this Red Power activist fail to adequately account for all of his achievements—and failures. The following is a discussion of Russell Means’ life and the political events that define his legacy.
Born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Russell Means spent his early years living in San Francisco, California. During World War II, his family was one of 50,000 Native families who relocated to major urban centers for employment in the wartime industries. Russell’s upbringing was largely impacted by his abusive father who complicated the formative young boy’s childhood years. Despite popular television shows of “Father Knows Best” this was his only example of a Native masculinity and fatherhood.
Means first became aware about the political effects of Termination legislation at a small hole-in-the-wall Indian bar in San Francisco named “Warren’s Slaughter House Bar” (from 1953-1969, House Concurrent Resolution 108 opened a floodgate of federal legislation that severed the federal trust responsibility with over 109 Native Nations). Between frequenting various haunts of the Mission District’s Red Ghetto, Means moonlighted as a dance instructor. During these years Means also continued to struggle with the impact that his abusive father had on his young adult life.
Despite Means’ hard upbringing and challenging relationship with his father, the two did share a rather significant experience that forever influenced Means’ activism. In 1964 he and his father—along with other Bay Area Lakota—organized a little-known takeover of a recently abandoned federal prison—Alcatraz Island. While this brief occupation only lasted a few hours, the legal and tactical planning influenced another organization five years later: in 1969 the Indians of All Tribes (IAT) famed occupation of Alcatraz lasted over 19 months and signaled a new era of Red Power politics.
Even though he grew up in California, Russell traveled back and forth to South Dakota during the 1960s to spend time with relatives. Many Native families who relocated, on their own or through the BIA, during the 1940s and 1950s attempted to maintain connections to their communities. During this time Means landed a job as the director of a Community Action Program on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. After his first of four marriages failed, Means moved to Cleveland, Ohio—a BIA relocation city. His Community Action experience proved valuable when he founded the first Cleveland American Indian Center in 1969. There, Means established a credit union, a food bank, and unemployment assistance for the Native community. He also challenged Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians to change their discriminatory mascot image.
After meeting Russell Means at a conference in San Francisco, founders of the American Indian Movement (“AIM” established in 1968) saw immediate leadership potential in him. While AIM struggled early to find a voice, notoriety, and acceptance, the organization realized it needed to have a major “cause” for their activist pursuits. While in San Francisco, AIM learned more about the Alcatraz takeover, which had been organized by the Indian of All Tribes (IAT). Alcatraz, AIM leaders thought, was the perfect “cause” to join.
Although IAT had already established their political occupation of the island, AIM and Means proposed to take over the leadership of the Alcatraz occupation. IAT members, however, refused to relinquish their leadership of the student-led movement and ultimately evicted the members of AIM from the island. Even though AIM never returned to the island, they remain mistakenly connected to the history of the Alcatraz takeover. One of the greatest myths often regurgitated by historians, journalists, and scholars is that AIM led the Alcatraz takeover. But this is an absolutely false assumption.
Several other protests were erroneously credited to AIM and Russell Means. One of these includes the 1970 Thanksgiving Day protest at Plymouth Rock. The protest was organized by Wampanoag leader Frank James, who invited several Native organizations and leaders to join the Wampanoag in a day-of-mourning on the 350th Anniversary of Thanksgiving. Means took a different approach to the protest. Instead of mourning, he “seized the moment” and delivered a powerful speech while standing below a larger-than-life statue of Massasoit (former Wampanoag leader). To push their publicity agenda further, AIM activists took over the Mayflower II replica ship and buried Plymouth Rock. The press had a field day and published these photo ops. Headlines and stories emphasized the irony found in the Red Power Movement’s protest of the places that symbolize the founding of America. In this coverage, AIM and Russell Means are credited with organizing the event, while very little attention is attributed to the Wampanoag men and women.
This radical theater proved quite successful for AIM with media coverage of this and other events appearing in the New York Times. In this flurry of news reporting, Russell Means shot to instant stardom as a charismatic leader within the organization. That same year (1970) he lent his support to the Mount Rushmore takeover in the Black Hills of South Dakota. This protest was led by Lehman Brightman, the Lakota and Creek Director of another Red Power coalition from San Francisco known as United Native Americans. Means assisted in the Rushmore takeover and created another media spectacle by urinating on George Washington’s head. Again, many journalists credited AIM with being the leaders and organizers of the Rushmore protest, while mostly ignoring the work done by United Native Americans.
By the early 1970s, AIM had earned a reputation for successfully attracting press attention at major protests and events. In 1972, Pine Ridge Lakota resident Severt Young Bear requested AIM’s assistance to protest the violent death of Raymond Yellow Thunder in the border town of Gordon, Nebraska. Young Bear knew that the media might cover an event where AIM was present, and saw this as a way to bring national awareness to Yellow Thunder’s death. AIM used their connections to organize a successful economic boycott against Gordon’s businesses. This ultimately cost the border town millions of dollars, and Gordon citizens quickly buckled under the economic pressure.
Following these events in 1972, Indian Country was stunned by the assassination of Akwesasne Mohawk activist Richard Oakes. Oakes was a leader in the Alcatraz, Fort Lawton, and Pit River occupations. His tragic death prompted IAT members and Hank Adams (Ft. Peck Assiniboine activist for fishing rights and Survival of American Indians Association leader) to organize a march on Washington, D.C., known widely as the “Trail of Broken Treaties Caravan.” The principal organizing meeting occurred in Denver, Colorado, where AIM members joined the more established West Coast coalition. Three caravans started on the West Coast and they all converged in Washington, D.C.
After the Nixon White House refused to meet with caravan leaders they decided to camp at the BIA building. Their strategy met resistance as security and a large police force surrounded the government building. Fearing potential police brutality and lengthy arrests for taking over a federal building, the caravan leadership barricaded all of the doors and windows with old chairs, copiers, file cabinets, and even typewriters.
Once again, Russell Means used the media to garner attention for the event. He fearlessly paraded before police with a gas mask and a framed picture of Nixon that he cleverly employed as a war shield. Reporters seized upon the stark irony of the events that unfolded for six days in November 1972. During a key election year, this photo of Means appeared in newspapers across the nation. Richard Nixon, fearing bad press, brokered a deal. He offered a suitcase filled with $600,000 and amnesty for everyone who walked away from the building. Most of the negotiations that ensued are due to the leadership and determination of Hank Adams. However, the press centered their attention upon the long hair, braids, and bone chokers—as worn by Russell Means—as the “new face” of Red Power, a look coveted by activists as representing Indian pride.
The occupation of the BIA building was the first time that any federal government building had been taken over since the War of 1812. It took years before the BIA office recovered from the occupation. Following the event, both the government and the mainstream press highlighted photos of the BIA’s destruction as a way to discredit all Red Power activists as militant radicals. But for Native people across the country, the BIA was an agency that represented a complicated relationship: it was both beloved and hated. During this decade many tribes depended on the agency for federal services (like education and economic development). Ultimately, AIM’s association with the takeover fueled both pride and resentment among Tribal leaders who were engaged both directly and indirectly in the Red Power Movement.
AIM’s role as the face of Red Power was emphasized by the media. Not long after the BIA takeover, AIM appeared back in the news after members torched the Custer County Courthouse in Custer, South Dakota, on February 6, 1973. This protest erupted as a result over the lack of justice from the public lynching of Lakota man Wesley Bad Heart Bull.
Following this event in 1973, AIM remained in the South Dakota area. By the 1970s, the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization (“OSCRO” led by longtime Pine Ridge residents) organized to remove Pine Ridge Tribal Chairman, Richard “Dick” Wilson. Wilson and his unofficially deputized group of thugs, also known as the Guardians of the Oglala Nation (or “GOON” squad), bullied any and all opposition to his administration. As Tribal Chairman, Wilson used federal support and ammunition to instill a climate of terror and fear throughout Pine Ridge.
With perceived victories in Plymouth Rock, Gordon, Washington, D.C., and Custer, OSCRO recruited AIM to assist in their takeover of Wounded Knee. This was an effort to utilize AIM’s notoriety as a way to grab media attention for the sake of garnering protection from the retaliation of Wilson’s GOON squad.
Together, OSCRO and AIM launched a very public revolution by founding the Independent Oglala Nation in opposition to the Dick Wilson government. Quickly, their revolution for independence met serious military, state, and federal resistance with armored personnel carriers, jets, helicopters, riot-geared police, tracer rounds, and automatic weapons. After the 71-day siege at Wounded Knee, AIM fell under constant surveillance by the Counter- Intelligence Program of the FBI. Russell Means and hundreds of other AIM supporters who had any connection to Wounded Knee faced prosecution. This was another law enforcement tactic to divide and ultimately bankrupt the American Indian Movement. As AIM struggled in the courts, Dick Wilson’s reign continued at Pine Ridge with hundreds of unsolved murders and drive-by shootings.
In 1974, Russell Means faced a very public trial in Minneapolis. During this time he also ran for Tribal Chair against Dick Wilson—who narrowly defeated Means by voter fraud (a Civil Rights Commission investigated the election and found Means the clear winner, yet Wilson ignored the commission’s report and maintained his political office).
1975 marked a violent period in the state of South Dakota as a result of the death of two FBI field agents and, later, the death of Mi’kmaq AIM activist Ann Mae Pictou Aquash—all of which took place on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Suspecting AIM’s involvement, there was an all-out war on the organization and Red Power, which also impacted other Red Power coalitions that viewed themselves as being non-violent or non-militant. But these events heightened the violence around AIM, especially after South Dakota Attorney General Bill Janklow threatened to put a bullet in the heads of their leaders. Paranoia and fear seized AIM membership and other Red Power organizations. During this era of violence, Russell Means survived twelve lengthy legal trials and multiple attempts on his life (two shootings and a stabbing).
By 1976, Russell Means appeared in a set of images not taken by the press. Instead, he posed for a series of portraits with pop icon and artist Andy Warhol. In 1978 Means joined the Longest Walk which marched from Alcatraz Island to Washington, D.C. This included a coalition of Native organizations that called for religious freedom and drew attention to the forced sterilization of Indian women, and where Russell Means challenged and publicly debated Senator Edward Kennedy.
Throughout the 1980s, Means resigned several times from AIM and also formed his own rival organization to AIM’s Grand Governing Council in Minneapolis. Over the next few years Means continued to organize with the International Indian Treaty Council and Yellow Thunder Camp. In 1984, sexploitation mogul and Hustler magazine founder Larry Flynt selected Russell Means as his Vice Presidential running mate for the Republican Party ticket. Four years later, Means became the first American Indian to run for President under the Libertarian Party.
During the 1990s, Means appeared in Hollywood’s rendition of James Fenmore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, Disney’s Pocahontas, and Oliver Stone’s homage to cultures of violence in Natural Born Killers. While Means took heat for compromising his values by becoming the very stereotype he had previously protested against. In 1993, Means followed the success of former AIM National Chairman and Santee musician John Trudell with the release of his first album Electric Warrior. While the album never appeared on the Billboard it featured the short-lived Indian radio track “Indian Cars Go Far”. Over the next few years he appeared in dozens of television sitcoms and documentaries.
By the late 1990s, the Diné Nation charged Means on assault and battery for physically abusing his much older Omaha father-in-law Leon Grant and Diné member Jeremiah Bitsui. He claimed sovereignty and exemption from Diné legal jurisdiction as a Pine Ridge citizen—an appeals court upheld a Navajo Nation Supreme Court ruling. This very public trial served as a major blemish in Means’ credibility throughout Indian Country. The mere mention of his name sparked harsh reactions and many labeled him an opportunist or a leader of American Indian Movie-stars. In an effort to redeem himself, he used his reckless behavior to place Indian sovereignty rather than his violent act within national headlines. To redeem his credibility, Means returned to politics and after an unsuccessful Governor campaign in New Mexico, he once again ran for President of the Oglala Sioux Tribe at Pine Ridge.
Russell Means lectured all over the world and led a long fight against throat cancer. Initially, his doctors prescribed an aggressive surgery and chemotherapy treatment to remove the cancer–an option that would have left Means unable to speak. Refusing to lose his most powerful weapon Means elected to promote Native medicines to prevent the loss of his voice. He led an extremely public battle against cancer, yet remained active in his cause by speaking through various forms of social media—Youtube and other public gatherings. Despite a grueling battle, Indian Country watched as Russell Mean’s life faded before our very eyes. Up to the end, Means continued to speak publicly last year he spoke at a conference on Wounded Knee at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Means was an entertainer—a modern trickster. He reflected the real and painful truths of our human existence. He often sparred with both mainstream American and Indian societies; he defied convention and label—he was anything but predictable. He protested against stereotypes about Indians and yet played a stereotype in popular movies.
Russell Means and the American Indian Movement are often cast in a largely mythic role, a false image supported by many scholars and popular media who continue to falsely credited AIM as the lone iconic organization of Red Power. While Means acted in many different roles, his most significant role was that of an activist.
Ultimately he will remain a controversial political figure. Years from now, historians, scholars, and the public will continue to debate Means’ successes and failures as a leader and performer in the Red Power Movement. Indian Country is quickly losing many of the veterans who helped shape the American Indian political landscape during this critical era in modern American history. Russell Means’ passing is an important reminder that we are rapidly losing a generation—who each in their own unique ways, maintained, promoted, and challenged the future of modern Tribal self-determination and sovereignty.