Levi Rickert, editor-in-chief in Native Condition. Discussion »
There are some people who become legendary in life while they yet live. Russell Means - the Lakotah warrior - was one such person.
Russell Means confronting Sen. Edward Kennedy
Whether Russell Means was in a confrontation with Senator Edward Kennedy, as he was as the Longest Walk ended in Washington in 1978, or up on the large screen in Hollywood's "Last of the Mohicans in 1992," he loomed larger than life.
Though he walked on early Monday morning from complications of cancer, the tenacious spirit he possessed will live on in many modern warriors who still have a lot of work to do to make this country a better place for American Indians.
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.
Means came to prominence as an American Indian leader after a half-century of federal policies that seemingly left American Indians rudderless through the eras of Termination and Relocation.
With his rise to fame, Means became a strong and forceful voice for American Indians. Means was not afraid to speak out against ill-conceived federal policies; American Indian sports mascot portrayals or celebrating Columbus Day for a lost Italian sailor. His voice was heard internationally as a voice of indigenous people everywhere. He made a journey to speak before the UN special rapporteur in early May on the Rosebud Indian Reservation.
Russell Means was by no means a perfect man. No man is. He made mistakes. He was controversial. Yet, American Indians know he was on their side in the fight against injustices and he was a strong voice for Indian people.
Within any organization, various individuals have different roles to play. Within the American Indian Movement, Means became an effective spokesperson for American Indians. He possessed a knack on how to work with the media and press, which sometimes meant not dealing with the media as a strategy. He dealt with the media with skill in a time when American Indians were clueless on how to properly utilize the press to effectively get the proper message out.
Means and others in the American Indian Movement provided a resurgence to Indian culture that allowed for a climate that eventually led to passage of landmark Indian legislation and even casino gaming. It was through the prodding and pushing the envelope of the likes of Russell Means that led to some parity for American Indians.
Future American Indian historians someday undoubtedly will write a revision of history and muddle through all the controversial deeds of Russell Means. We will leave it to them to do so. As a Native media source, we choose to celebrate the legacy of a great warrior who gave us voice.
Today, we simply say megwetch for allowing this and future generations of American Indians to understand we do not have to be complacent and simply 'go along to get along' in a society that had left us for dead a long time ago.
We know there is still much work to be done, but we pause to say megwetch for Russell Means.
posted October 23, 2012 7:20 am edt