Photo: Lloyd Cunningham, Gannett/Argus Leader
Back in March 1973, David Garrick and I traveled down from Canada to South Dakota. We managed to hike and crawl some twenty miles through the brush and snow, passing armed Federal officers until we made our way into the village of Wounded Knee.
I was 22 years old, foolhardy, reckless and admittedly naïve, but I had just read Dee Brown’s "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" and I was determined to support the American Indian Movement (AIM).
I was there to support the occupation of Wounded Knee by AIM and to report on the situation back to Robert Hunter at the Vancouver Sun. I was also there to write about the experience for the Vancouver weekly newspaper, Georgia Straight.
David and I became citizens of the Independent Oglala Nation of Wounded Knee and Pedro Bissonette stamped and signed our Canadian passports to that effect. David and I spent a month in the village while it was under siege and I volunteered as a medic. With food running low, all but the essential warriors were asked to leave to provide more resources for the small group of defenders that would stay behind.
So David and I once again crawled through the snow and the brush back to Porcupine on the Pine Ridge Reservation where Dewy Brave Heart met us and smuggled us past Dickie Wilson’s goon squads and off the reservation.
It was an experience I shall never forget and I learned many valuable lessons during my short time amongst this small group of committed and passionate members of the American Indian Movement led by Dennis Banks and Russell Means.
I am saddened to hear that Russell Means has died at the age of 72.
I remember him vividly. He was a larger than life personality back in 1973 just as he remained until the day he died. My fondest memory of him was the day he stood outside of the sweat lodge with Leonard Crow Dog and Wallace Black Elk and spoke to a small group of us. The impression that I had was, "Here is a man willing to die for what he believed in, and what he believed in was justice for his people."
He spoke just once to me when he asked me why I was there. I remember his words: “What brings you here all the way from Canada. You’re not an Indian?”
I answered that, “No, perhaps not, but then again maybe we all should be Indians.”
He laughed. “Good answer.” And walked away.
I did have the opportunity to hear him tell some colorful stories and I was able to observe him under stressful conditions. After all, the F.B.I. U.S. Marshalls, Bureau of Indian Affairs and U.S. soldiers had the place surrounded and were firing thousands of rounds of bullets into the village every night. I still remember the bullet that whizzed by my ear in the dark of night as I was walking down the hill from the Catholic Church.
And what I saw and heard impressed me. I saw a man of great courage and exceptional passion. There was a bitter side to him, and most definitely an undisguised anger festered within him. But more than anyone I have ever met, he personified everything that is embodied in the simple but powerful Lakota war cry of “Hoka Hey: It is a good day to die!”
Despite the risks he took Russell was a difficult man to kill. He was stabbed in prison and survived several gunshot wounds; one from the revolver of an Indian Affairs police officer (1975), two assassination attempts, a grazed forehead from a drive-by shooter (also in 1975), and a wound to the chest from another would-be-assassin in 1976.
Russell Means fought the government not just in the field but also in the courts and for all the energy and money the Federal government spent to lock him away in prison, Russell Means only served a year in a State prison when he was convicted of “involvement” in a riot.
Russell was more than just an activist, he was a musician, a writer, a politician and most famously an actor, notably starring in “The Last of the Mohicans,” and appearing in some 30 films including “Natural Born Killers” and “Pocahontas.” He also ran for President.
Like any activist and outspoken personality, people either loved him or they hated him, and that to me always indicates someone who is actually making a difference. You don’t change the world by making everyone happy, because a good percentage of people will violently oppose you if you rock the boat. And Russell Means was one hell of a boat-rocking badass because ever since the notorious Mayflower landed in 1620 this boat called America has needed rocking.
Russell Means did in fact rock the actual Mayflower in 1970 when he led a group of AIM activists in seizing the Mayflower II.
Critics have accused Russell of a variety of sleights, called him a self-promoting opportunist, a charlatan and a coward.
Interesting. Not that Russell Means would care but the reality is this: Here was a man who risked his life for his people and for his beliefs, and there can be no denial of this fact. Here is a man who was undeterred by four attempts to kill him and who served time in prison for standing up for what he believed in. Here was a man who expressed himself in the art of writing, music and dramatic acting. Here was a man who spoke truth to power.
Most likely any critics who “boldly” step forward now to mock and insult the dead, have done little themselves and have never experienced the challenges that drove Russell Means to become the most famous Native American since Crazy Horse, Geronimo and Sitting Bull.
I knew Russell Means only briefly, although I followed his career with admiration for decades. He taught me to stand tall in the face of formidable opposition. He illustrated to me that passion combined with imagination and courage is what makes a warrior impeccable and worthy of being called a true hero.
As for faults, of course he had faults. He was a human and I have never met a faultless human being. I have however met a few heroes and they all have had faults.
As Abraham Lincoln once observed, “Show me a man without vice and I’ll show you a man without virtue.”
He always had and he always will have my admiration and respect.
Russell Means (November 10, 1939 – October 22, 2012)
Waŋná wanáǧiyata níŋ na uŋ líla ičháŋteuŋšičapi, oíyokšiče ló. Éyaš óhiŋniyaŋ čhíksuya uŋk’úŋpi kte ló.
Roughly translated: Now you are making the journey to the spirit world and we are sad. But we will always remember you.
* Facebook: National-Anarchist Movement (N-AM)