Actor Russell Means: Oglala Lakota activist
How is everyone doing? Boy was this week crazy! There was a full moon last Monday, part of the moon cycle, and it was felt in my clients at work! So taking a breath and taking care of myself this weekend.
I first really came across the life and work of actor Russell Means when I wrote about Wounded Knee II (read my article here), where Means led a 71 days occupation of the Wounded Knee site to show disagreement and protest against the then politics and injustice. I have since read quite a bit more about Means so I thought I would sum it up here. Let’s talk about Russell Means, actor, activist and the man with 9 lives.
His early days
Means, Oglala Lakota, was born in 1939 in the middle of the land rich in history for the Lakota people: Pine Ridge Reservation. Boy where to start with this one! Pine Ridge, the scene of Wounded Knee in December 29, 1890, where approximately 250 Lakota men, women and children lost their life. After surrendering. Led by Chief Big Foot, the Lakota people surrendered as they were exhausted and wished for peace. In a fumble, the army officers began shooting at them and did not stop until they thought there were no survivors. The Wounded Knee massacre was one of the most heinous and senseless genocide in the history of the Native people. And Pine Ridge Reservation is where it took place. And it is where Means was born and it is where he later fought for the rights of his people.
Nonetheless, Means’ parents moved him to California when he was 3 years old, where he spent his childhood. It seems, however, that his heart was in South Dakota, as slowly but surely he made his way back. Influenced by his father, Means became involved in defending the rights of the Native people in his early twenties. He attended his first official rally at the age of 25, on the grounds of Alcatraz, in the San Francisco bay. The protest was regarding a violation of a treaty stating that any unused land would be returned to its previous occupants. Shockingly (not…), the government had not respected the treaty. This rally was a pivotal point in Means’ life, who from then on focused his efforts on fighting for the rights of the Native people (many times in a very eloquent way).
The American Indian Movement and Wounded Knee II
Means was the first national director of the American Indian Movement (AIM) in 1970, at the tender age of 31. AIM was originally founded in Minnesota two years earlier and aimed to focus on treaties issues, sovereignty of the tribes as well as spirituality and any sort of injustice committed against the Native people. Means was its first official leader and he took his role seriously.
In the next years, he led a series of protests, demonstrations and vigils from Mount Rushmore (carved in the Black Hills of the Lakota people in South Dakota…) to the Plymouth rock in Massachusetts (where the MayFlower pilgrims disembarked in 1620). He also participated in the Trail of Broken Treaties, a cross-country protest from California to Washington, DC to, as the name states, protest broken treaties, in 1972.
And then came February 27, 1973. The day Means and the AIM led a armed takeover of Wounded Knee, a small town on the sacred land belonging to the Pine Ridge Reservation. As I have previously explained, Wounded Knee II was a cry for the rights of the Native people led by people who were fed up of broken treaties, broken promises and a corrupted government and what was thought to be a corrupt tribal president.
This led to a 71 days occupation, or a standoff more accurately, between 200-250 Oglala Lakotas and the FBI and the US Marshalls. A few lives were lost in this armed standoff, one that was also about the increased violence on the reservation. The irony is not lost here. As Pine Ridge Reservation was and still is known as a struggling reservation, a poor and violent reservation. Beautiful people but harsh conditions. Did Wounded Knee II led by Means accomplish what it wished to? I am not sure, not sure at all. As the conditions of the Native people did not improve. Violence actually increased after the occupation…
And the murder of Annie Mae Aquash and Means’ political ambitions
In 1975, Annie Mae Aquash was murdered on the Pine Ridge Reservation. She was a Mi’kmaq woman from Nova Scotia who was also known as an AIM activist and educator. However, the word on the “downlow” was that Annie was a FBI informant and was killed by members of the AIM. Means, not one to stay silent, over the years began to bring awareness to her murder, asking for justice and resolution. He persisted using and sharing his knowledge of AIM and its functioning (once he exited the organization) to bring her killers in front of the court. Two AIM members were eventually convicted of her murder more than 25 to 30 years later.
At the same time, Means was becoming more and more known. Which typically leads to followers but also enemies. And Means got both. In the years that followed Wounded Knee II, Means escaped more than one bullet. He was shot in the chest, in the abdomen and a bullet grazed his forehead. All the way being cleared of murder charges. He was also incarcerated for participating in a riot and then stabbed by an inmate while in prison. I don’t know about you but holy crap the man must have had 9 lives! And yet he just kept going, never ending his battle for the rights of the Native people. A’Ho Russell Means.
His later years
Following such action, Means focused his time on being politically involved (attempted to ran for president in 1987) and gave more than one speech worth listening to. The man was nothing if not well spoken. I have included one of my favorite speeches at the end of this article. He officially retired from the AIM in 1988.
Once again, being this involved can also lead to good things. Means then began an acting
career, first with The Last of the Mohicans in 1992 followed by appearances in other movies or TV series such as “Natural Born Killers” and the series “Buffalo Girls”. He also released his appropriately titled autobiography “Where White Men Fear to Tread” (the link to buy it is at the top of this article or click here). All the while continuing to participate in rallies, protests and being politically engaged (he ran by the office of president for the Oglala Sioux Tribe but was beaten by the first woman to be elected, Cecilia Fire Thunder).
To say that this man has done everything and has played many roles would be an understatement….Was he always successful in what he wished to accomplish? Hell no. But he was a trailblazer. He did not sit on the sidelines, he went where the action was, oftentimes bringing it with him!
Means spent his final years on his ranch on the Pine Ridge reservation, where it stared it all. He came back to his roots and died of esophageal cancer in 2012 (he also turned to traditional medicine and ceremonies to ease the associated pain). When I look at Means, I see a man with a dream and hope. He never stopped. Bullets and stab wounds could not even stop him! He fought until his last day for his people, for justice. Some will say that he sold out to politics and left the AIM behind bitterly. But no, he did what was and felt right. He did not go against the AIM, he helped a murder get solved and the killers to be convicted. Because yes sometimes doing the right thing sucks or is difficult. He had ambition and it was at times misconceived as arrogance. But I think it was pride. He always carried himself with pride. He wore his braids until the day he died, he stayed true to his roots. No matter what. And that I respect.
Take a moment to watch the video below. You don’t have to watch the whole thing but listen to Means speak for a few minutes. Listen to how well he expresses himself calmly. One cannot help but listen to him. Tell me what you think below, what are your thoughts on Means, his life, his story?
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