In Agents of Repression, a book by Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall on the FBI’s secret wars against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement, there is a photo of Russell Means carrying an enlarged photograph of Richard Nixon like a shield in preparation of a confrontation with the police in front of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) building in D.C. in 1972.
This action was typical of Means’ audacity and his creative way of bringing attention to the American Indian Movement. With his death on Monday at his ranch in Porcupine, S.D. the world is reminded again of his tireless dedication to the rights of indigenous people. He was 72.
“Our dad and husband, now walks among our ancestors,” an email from his wife and children related. “He began his journey to the spirit world at 4:44 am, with the Morning Star, at his ranch in Porcupine. There will be four opportunities for the people to honor his life to be announced at a later date.
“Thank you for your prayers and continued support,” the email added. “We love you. As our dad and husband would always say ‘May the Great Mystery continue to guide and protect the paths of you and your loved ones.’”
Means soared into the nation’s consciousness when he as a one of the leaders of AIM launched an armed occupation of the South Dakota town of Wounded Knee in 1973. For 71 days the siege continued, including several exchanges of gunfire with federal agents.
Ironically, Means’ passing follows by one day the death of Sen. George McGovern, 90, who had travelled to Wounded Knee with Sen. James Abourezk to try to negotiate an end to the siege.
There had been several encounters with AIM and the BIA prior to the siege in which the Trail of Broken Treaties committee, through the leadership of Means, was demanding certain rights from the Department of Interior. And even before this incident, Means and Dennis Banks, in February, 1972, upset that nothing had been done by the law enforcement agencies in the murder of Raymond Yellow Thunder, an Ogala activist, led 1,500 angry Native Americans, mostly Sioux from Pine Ridge and Rosebud, into the town of Gordon, Nebraska, an occupied it for three days.
These actions were a prelude to the standoff at Wounded Knee and it would propel Means, Banks, the Bellecourt brothers, Vernon and Clyde, and AIM onto the headlines of papers and into the crosshairs of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.
The notoriety obtained from Pine Ridge, Wounded Knee and other incidents from Lakotah land gave the good-looking Means motion picture opportunities and he did his best to balance the demeaning, stereotypical treatment Native Americans had endured for centuries, but with only a modicum of success, given the abominable scripts and characters he was offered.
Of all his accomplishments on film and in the human rights struggle, Means often talked about his success in founding the Republic of Lakotah with the intent of becoming a sovereign nation and earning respect from other governments, even the United Nations as his most significant achievement.
As the emails of tribute began, among the first to honor him was Paulette Dauteuil, co-chair of the Jericho Movement that advocates for political prisoners and prisoners of war. She asked that we reflect on the work done by Means, particularly his unwavering interest in protecting Mother Earth and his people.
In 1975, Means was once again caught in turmoil and the accusation that AIM was involved in a killing. Noted political prisoner Leonard Peltier was convicted and imprisoned from this shooting that left two FBI agents dead.
Controversy dogged Means’ every move but it never stifled his resolve to fight for Native American causes or dignity.
“No one except Hollywood stars and very rich Texans wear Indian jewelry,” he once lamented. “That’s all changed.” As Native Americans became more self-aware and self-determined there was less of need for AIM and if Means worked himself out of business his people are the beneficiaries.