Indian activist Russell Means remembered as inspiring but controversial

By MARTHA STODDARD / OMAHA WORLD-HERALD / October 23, 2012

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LINCOLN — Russell Means, a charismatic and controversial activist who drew attention to injustices against American Indians in Nebraska and elsewhere, died early Monday at his home in Porcupine, S.D.

Hours later, Winnebago activist Frank LaMere offered tobacco and prayers to mark the death of a man he called “a great American” and friend.

“I will miss him. Native people will all miss him,” the Nebraska leader said. “He elevated Indian issues to a place where people could notice and were forced to act on them.”

Among those issues was the flow of beer from the tiny Nebraska border town of Whiteclay into the dry Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Millions of cans of beer are sold each year in the village of about 20 people.

Means was arrested in 1999 and again in 2007 while joining in protests of white store owners in Whiteclay, who were accused of exploiting the reservation’s alcohol problem.

The first protest followed the still-unsolved killings of two men, whose bodies were found outside the town.

Mark Vasina, a member of Nebraskans for Peace who made a documentary on Whiteclay, called Means “a genius” at getting public attention and using it to push Indian concerns.

“When he spoke, people paid attention, whether they agree with him or not,” Vasina said.

Means, 72, died of inoperable esophageal cancer.

An Oglala Sioux born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, he grew up in the San Francisco area before becoming an early leader of the American Indian Movement.

AIM was founded in the late 1960s to protest the U.S. government’s treatment of Native Americans and demand that the government honor its treaties with Indian tribes. Means first gained national attention when he led a group of Indian protesters in seizing the Mayflower II ship replica in Plymouth, Mass., on Thanksgiving Day 1970.

Other protests included a prayer vigil atop Mount Rushmore to focus attention on Lakota claims to the Black Hills and an occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., to highlight broken treaties.

His leadership of the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee, S.D., cemented his place in the national spotlight. The protesters demanded strict federal adherence to old Indian treaties and an end to what they called corrupt tribal governments.

He found himself dogged for decades by questions about the group’s alleged involvement in the slaying of a tribe member, Annie Mae Aquash, and the several gunbattles with federal officers during the 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee, but he denied that the group ever promoted violence.

He and AIM co-founder Dennis Banks were charged in 1974 with assault, larceny and conspiracy for their role in Wounded Knee, but a judge threw out the charges on the grounds of government misconduct.

Other legal problems followed. He was convicted in 1976 of involvement in a clash between police and Indian activists at a Rapid City, S.D., courthouse and spent a year in prison.

Some of the controversy that surrounded him came from within Indian country. But LaMere said Means earned respect for his dedication to freedom and justice for Indians.

“No one can deny that Russell Means and AIM voiced our frustration, channeled our anger and represented to the nation and the world the hopes that Indian people have for our lives and for the generations to come,” he said.

Judi gaiashkibos, director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, called Means “very polarizing” but fearless and impressive.

“I don’t think we will find a leader, activist or actor like him anytime soon,” she said.

Before Whiteclay, Means’ activism brought him to Nebraska at least twice. In 1990, he led a march to the Box Butte County Courthouse protesting a judge’s decision to release two juveniles arrested in the stabbing death of an American Indian man.

Eight years later, he spoke at a rally protesting state and federal authorities’ decision to close the Santee Sioux casino in Knox County.

Means also was known for his acting career, which began in 1992 when he portrayed Chingachgook in “The Last of the Mohicans.” His television and movie credits included the 1994 film “Natural Born Killers” and voicing Chief Powhatan in the 1995 animated film “Pocahontas.”

Means also ran unsuccessfully for the Libertarian nomination for president in 1988 and made three unsuccessful bids to be elected tribal president.

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