RIP Russell Means

by: Kate Mottola

October 24, 2012

On Monday a true hero was lost among the living. At 4:44am on October 22, 2012, Russell Means passed away from throat cancer at his home in Porcupine, South Dakota. Born an Oglala/Lakota Sioux Indian, he will be long remembered and honored as a pivotal figure in American history for carrying an unbreakable determination for justice and dedication to leadership throughout his life. Having directed the American Indian Movement (AIM) for almost two decades, Means fearlessly advocated for the rights, recognition, and dignities of indigenous peoples throughout all lands. Though corporeally Russell Means has passed on – his symbolic presence remains, his work continues in the hearts and bodies of others, and his vision of a healthier, respectable world endures.

Russell Means WILD mag world
A portrait of Russell Means done by Andy Warhol for his American Indians series in 1976

Among his noteworthy political platforms, Means argued tirelessly against racist attacks and ideologies on the cultural heritage of Native Americans and Native representations. For instance, as the director of Cleveland’s AIM chapter, he filed a $9 million lawsuit against the Cleveland Indians baseball team in 1972 due to their usage and promotion of ‘Indian’ mascot, Chief Wahoo. The lawsuit was settled seven years later out of court – but the spirit and cause of his dissent continues today. In the 1990’s, Means began a career in the entertainment industry and starred in several lead roles in major Hollywood films – such as Last of the Mohicans, Natural Born Killers, and Disney’s Pocahontas – as well as recorded two albums of protest music.

Having survived numerous assassination attempts and many brushes with the law, Means’ arguably most renowned and rebellious act took place at Wounded Knee in February of 1973. It was here that the Lakota nation made a stand for Native rights and stood in protest of historical and persistent U.S. government oppression against (and suppression of) indigenous communities, cultures, and languages. Russell Means joined a large group of Lakota Indians and together (re)occupied Wounded Knee by holding it in defiance of the government. They called for the government to honor the 1868 Sioux treaty – which acknowledged that the Black Hills of South Dakota still belonged to the Sioux people and should be returned to them. This reclamation of Native land by Native people ended violently after 71 days in a siege of bullets and bloodshed with Federal forces.

One of Russell Means’ passionate goals was to establish a Total Immersion School in the U.S. This idea came out of beliefs and actions taken by Maori peoples (indigenous to Aoteroa/New Zealand) to create schools where children can be completely absorbed in the language, culture, education and storytelling of their own people and ancestors. There are various efforts and projects working to institute such schools, mostly in the mid-West and Alaska; Kanaka Maoli, natives of Hawai`i, have language immersion programs in schools but few offer the total immersion experience espoused by Native activists like Means. Such efforts remain a constant battle against authorities and against the pervasive ignorance of Native experiences – both historically and contemporarily. Even if such lack of knowledge is due less to calculated action or independent behavior than it is to coming of age in and being influenced by a settler colony.

Means’ death offers an opportunity for mainstream and pop culture to consider his legacy and to take up what he has bequeathed to us – a social responsibility to acknowledge and continue resistance. As Joanne Barker, Lenni/Lenape associate professor of American Indian Affairs at SF State University, astutely asserts, “The reality denied is that Native/Indigenous peoples are not conquered, vanished, romantic relics of the past. They are humans of a legal, economic, and social present that demands accountability and respect.” Russell Means, may you rest in peace and power.


*For a chronological timeline of Means’ life, see Indian Country Today’s article remembering the brave leader.


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