A symbol of the Native struggle

October 29, 2012

Brian Ward and Ragina Johnson remember the life of a courageous activist.

RUSSELL MEANS, one of the great leaders of American Indian resistance in the 20th century, passed away on October 22 at the age of 72.

Means was a well-known figure in the American Indian Movement (AIM), a militant organization demanding that the U.S. reexamine its treatment of Indians both in the past and present. Later in his life, he was better known for his acting, but he remained a controversial figure, constantly pushing the envelope on issues of justice and Native rights.

Means, who was Oglala Lakota, was born in 1939 on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Wanblee, S.D. When he was three, his family moved to the San Francisco area in the search of jobs--his father became a shipyard worker.

The American Indian Movement (AIM), which Means was to join, was shaped by the broader radicalization of the 1960s and the fight for civil rights for African Americans and Black Power, the women's movement and the struggle to end the Vietnam War.

Native Indians had long faced injustices and racial discrimination driven by policies of the U.S. government to steal more and more Native lands, using racism to justify this theft. In the 1950s, the U.S. government declared reservations "terminated" in order for big businesses and corporations to grab tribal land and resources.

Russell Means
Russell Means

These 20th century land grabs pushed families like the Meanses to urban centers to find work and go to school. And there, even more overt discrimination and racism pushed Indians of different tribes together into a Pan-Indian/Red Power movement to fight for self-determination, the right to speak their Native languages and the defense of tribal lands and dignity. In both the cities and the border towns of the reservations, Native Americans faced both housing and job discrimination, as well as racist police violence.


MEANS' ACTIVISM for American Indian rights started with his participation in a brief occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1964--he was one of 40 people who participated in the four-hour demonstration. This was a precursor to the better-known American Indian occupation of Alcatraz from 1969 to 1971.

In 1968, Means joined AIM, and two years later, he became the organization's first national director. He helped the 1970 occupation of the Mayflower II, a replica of the boat in which Europeans traveled to the "New World," landing in present-day Massachusetts.

In 1972, Means led a car caravan across the country in what was called the "Trail of Broken Treaties," in reference to the "Trail of Tears" in the 19th century that accompanied the forced relocation of many Native American nations. Upon arriving in Washington, D.C., AIM and other activists occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) building to protest the treatment of Native Americans and the BIA's connection to this.

Means is probably best known for leading the 1973 occupation of the village of Wounded Knee, S.D. on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Here, AIM alongside Oglala Lakota activists from the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization (OSCRO) occupied the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre.

"We were about to be obliterated culturally," Means explained in the documentary We Shall Remain at Wounded Knee. "Our spiritual way of life, our entire way of life was about to be stamped out. And this was a rebirth of our dignity and self-pride."

The occupiers demanded that the U.S. government reexamine all its broken treaties and its treatment towards Native Americans. On a local level, they called for Dick Wilson--the tribal president of Pine Ridge, known among activists as a dictator backed by the federal government--removed.

In response, the government sent over 200 federal marshals, FBI agents and BIA police to surround the perimeter of the occupation. The government forces were armed with a ridiculous amount of weaponry and ammunition to put down the movement.

The mainstream media broadcast continual lies to demonize AIM and try to turn public opinion against the movement. Nevertheless, the occupation gained sympathy throughout the U.S., with majorities saying they supported the Indians. Actor Marlon Brando would refuse to accept his Oscar for best actor in The Godfather in a protest in solidarity with Native rights and against the stereotypes of Indians in movies. Native American actress Sacheen Littlefeather gave a speech refusing the award and was watched by millions.

Meanwhile, at Pine Ridge, there were constant shootouts between AIM activists and government agents and police. At the end of the 71-day occupation, two Indians had been killed as well as one federal marshal.

Means and fellow AIM leader Dennis Banks were put on trial for their role in the occupation, but the charges were thrown out. Nevertheless, the case drained AIM with fees and time spent in court, which contributed to the decline of the movement. leading to some of the downfall of the movement.

During and after the occupation, there was a rightful fear of FBI informants within the ranks of AIM. It was later confirmed that FBI informants existed in AIM and most every left-wing organization of the 1970s as part of the government's COINTELPRO program. AIM was a victim of COINTELPRO and people like Means lived with the bitter legacy and tragic outcomes of those attacks, such as the murder of First Nation activist Anna Mae Aquash.

Leonard Peltier--another AIM activist who was wrongfully convicted of the murder of two FBI agents and remains a political prisoner today, serving two consecutive life terms--gave this statement about Means from prison:

Russell Means will always be an icon whenever the American Indian Movement is spoken of and whenever people talk about the changes that took place, the changes that are taking place now for Indian people. One thing about Russell I always remembered, and I think someone else once said it--you may have loved him or you may have disliked him, but you couldn't ignore him.


MEANS' AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Where White Men Fear to Tread, was published in 1995. In it, he reflected on his life, and as usual, he didn't hold anything back.

In contrast with many AIM members and supporters, Means tended to support the Libertarian Party. He actually ran to be the party's presidential candidate in 1988, losing out to right-winger Ron Paul. Means supported Ralph Nader for president in both 2004 and 2008, but backed Paul as a Republican presidential candidate in 2012.

Means' support of the Libertarian Party and Paul was politically confusing, given the backward and racist policies that Paul, in particular, represents. But it's no surprise that Means would be drawn to alternatives to mainstream electoralism and the options that don't get a hearing within the two-party system.

In 2007, Means, along with other Lakota activists, declared the Republic of Lakotah, a sovereign nation, claiming property rights to over 1,000 acres of land in the Great Plains. This was a specific rejection of the tribal governments that federal government put in place of traditional decision-making on reservations.

Later in life, Means became well-known as an actor, particularly for the part he played in the Last of the Mohicans, and for being the voice of Chief Powhatan in the Disney animated film Pocahontas.

No matter what Means did, he was always relentless and controversial. During the AIM days, he represented a boldness and militancy that resonated with oppressed people. He fought passionately for the rights of all Native peoples on the continent until his last days. He also spoke out for other oppressed groups. For example, Means was scheduled to take part in the Russell Tribunal for Palestine, but had to cancel due to the worsening of the esophageal cancer that claimed his life.

The movement that Means supported and built in the 1960s and '70s is desperately needed today. American Indians face the highest poverty and unemployment rate of any part of the population in the U.S., and recent reports detail suicide rates of Indian youth at three times that of any other youth group.

Native American culture and history is still not taught in schools--in many ways, Native peoples are straight-out ignored, even as while sports teams and their mascots still bare racist names caricaturing Native peoples as "Braves," "Indians" and "Chiefs." Tribal lands are being contaminated by mining, agreements on fishing rights have broken, and burial grounds are violated.

As a new generations of activists fight against discrimination, racism and inequality, we should celebrate Russell Means' life and draw lessons and inspiration from him and the work of the AIM in our fight for justice today.

Recent articles

E-mail alerts

Further Reading

Today's Stories

From the archives