Russell Means: By No Means a Perfect Man, Yet He was Our Strong Voice
By Levi Rickert
Make no mistake about it, Means was a confrontational American Indian warrior. He was one who did not like to back down. Sometimes in leadership, circumstances dictate action. Such was the case when the American Indian Movement arrived at the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington with the Trail of Broken Treaties caravan with a twenty-point position paper. Having been promised a meeting with BIA officials, they felt double-crossed when there would be no meeting. Late in the afternoon, Means and Dennis Banks decided to "occupy" the building when they were told the police were on the way to remove the American Indian Movement members. The confrontational occupation drew national attention to living conditions of American Indians and broken treaties.
The fight inside of Means became his calling card. The tenacity Means possessed led the Washington Post to call him the "…biggest, baddest, meanest, angriest, most famous American Indian activist of the late 20th century."
This same tenacity allowed him to fight cancer vigorously after he was first diagnosed in July 2011. Perhaps, a person with lesser will would have given up earlier, as do many people. Even while living with a life-threatening illness, Means realized there is still much work that needs to be done to improve American Indians lives - even with the advent of casinos and other tribal enterprises. There are still way too many American Indians suffering in the United States. Russell Means understood this to the end of his life on this earth.
This sheer fight he had on the inside is what made Means great and perhaps will become his lasting legacy.
The Wall Street Journal did an interview with Mann and asked him: What were your thoughts when you found out he had passed away?
“Well, I knew it was coming about a week ago. Because there had been an email exchange with his wife. He wanted to get back and die at Pine Ridge…First of all he was way too young. 72 is young. Way too young to pass away,” Mann told the Journal. “He’s an iconic person. He’s lived through so much…What this guy stood for, the courage he had, and who they took on, in the 60, 70s and 80s—[American Indian activist Leonard] Peltier is still in prison. It’s a struggle that’s 400 years old. And Russell was fighting that battle every day of his life.”
Robert Chanate, a member of the Kiowa Nation
Says Means “led from the front and took the same risks as anyone else. Whether that meant going to jail, standing vigil in uncomfortable weather or carrying out tasks while exhausted, Russell Means wasn’t one to skip out on us. Many times we’d complete a rally and Russell would jump in his van to travel to a different state so he could fulfill another request for his support.”
Glenn Morris, of the American Indian Movement of Colorado
“In recognition of one of the primary, visionary leaders in beginning the contemporary work of international indigenous peoples’ liberation, of which we are all beneficiaries. Without Russell, it is doubtful that many of us who do this work would have had the honor of continuing to defend our peoples in this way. Indigenous leaders, ranging from Rigoberta Menchu Tum, to Subcomandante Marcos to Evo Morales, have said that their work was inspired and motivated by the words, actions and example of Russell Means. May we all remember the historic contributions of Russell Means to the freedom and self-determination of all indigenous peoples, everywhere.”
By Gyasi Ross
I see Russell Means as the Indigenous equivalent of Malcolm X. See, the truth is that Native people needed (and still need) the fiery doppelganger of thoughtful, mainstream organizations like National Congress of American Indians in the same way that Martin Luther King, Jr. needed Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael. Whereas National Congress of American Indians speaks politely and eloquently, using big words and paperwork to demand that the United States give Native people our just due, Russell Means was the person with the chip on his shoulder that would simply smack those dirty thieves in the mouth and take as much of that “just due” as he could. The truth is that these approaches need each other—they are not at odds. Neither approach is perfect, but both approaches are needed for Native peoples’ success and survival.
Symbiotic. Both necessary. Complementary.
Russell Means was loud. And eloquent. And flawed. And dangerous. And sexy. He made the image of a huge Native male being politically active something acceptable, even ideal. He wasn’t a bookworm that people could easily ignore—he spoke loudly, and powerfully—so much confidence in himself that those that were threatened by him just wished that they’d hear some bad news about him someday so they could stop hearing about him. “Y’know that Russell Means was in a plane crash…” Never happened; heck, he even whooped cancer for a long time. Sexy. Long hair, leather jackets, brown skin—he was the image of a Native person that all of us have, whether it’s politically correct to say so or not. Men wanted to be him, women wanted to be with him—the Indigenous James Bond. At a time of lagging self-esteem for Indigenous people, where we were taught to believe, after 500 years of ugly genocide, forced assimilation and conquest, that everything “Native” was ugly, dirty, evil, stupid, he made “looking Indian” cool again.
He made being Native sexy. Imperfect, but a start to reclaiming our collective sense of self-worth.
Every single Native person on this continent owes him a debt of gratitude. Thank you Russell Means—the toughest Indian in the world.