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  • Twentieth-Century American Indian Political Dissent and Russell Means
  • Elizabeth Cook-Lynn (bio)

Prior to Russell Means’s birth in South Dakota in 1940, the U.S. Interior Committee undertook a series of reports during the late 1920s. Titled Survey of Conditions of Indians and the United States,1 this study contains congressional directives calling for a federal investigation of the appalling conditions, then being called a scandal, facing Indian Country, with solutions in mind. Scholarly writings have subsequently shaken the conscience of the United States and its disastrous Indian policies. As early as 1983, for instance, writer Peter Matthiessen argued for the legitimacy of Indian protests.2

This Senate report called for a complete review of Indian policy, an investigation of Indian treaties, a plan for the defense of Indian rights, and a review of an awful history that included such atrocities as massacres; social, economic, and political oppression; wars; and destitution. Sadly, genocidal U.S. policies nearly destroyed the lives and sovereignty of America’s Indigenous peoples. In 1934, Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) in an attempt to reverse the harm caused by the allotment/coercive assimilation policies that began during the 1880s. The IRA returned elements of self-government to Indian nations but kept Indian governments under the supervision of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. However, the IRA supplanted the traditional chiefs council with elected officials, which caused crises in leadership at various reservations. Yet, aided by opposition smoldering from unfulfilled treaty commitments, grinding poverty, and misguided policies, [End Page 14] the American Indian Movement (AIM) spread across the northern plains during the early 1970s. Sioux dissidents in return found themselves at the forefront of activism against colonialism for the sake of their own survival.

Early in AIM’s history, Russell Means, a tall, handsome, and articulate Lakotah Sioux, quickly rose to stardom, becoming one of its most noted spokespersons and leaders. The AIM protest has been described in various ways, but people of the great Sioux Nation describe AIM’s actions as a defense of the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1868. Many of them today believe that AIM led the most important protest by Indians since Sitting Bull was shot on the banks of the Grand River in 1890 for challenging the imposition of the General Allotment Act on Sioux lands. This history also includes such horrendous events as the largest mass hanging in U.S. history (the 1862 lynching of thirty-eight Dakotas in Minnesota); the constant hounding of men, women, and children by the U.S. military; unbelievable poverty; and the “Massacre of the Innocents” at Wounded Knee in 1890. It is additionally characterized by countless acts of legislative fraud and land thefts and the enactment of dozens of U.S. statutes that can only be described as “anti-Indian.”

Until his death, Means eloquently spoke the truth about the suffering, pain, and shameful treatment Sioux people had received at the hands of the U.S. government despite its treaty obligations and self-serving mythology of American exceptionalism. Because of his spirited articulation of sovereignty, cultural survival, land restoration, and human rights, many Sioux joined AIM, becoming some of its most loyal and ardent supporters. Needing no prompting to heed AIM’s call to action, they participated in what essentially amounts to an ideological struggle against U.S domination.

Various U.S. politicians and government agencies, especially the FBI, took actions to discredit and eliminate AIM’s brand of Native politics. Most recently, Joseph H. Trimbach, a former FBI agent with an un-bending anti-Indian agenda, called the Pine Ridge Reservation (Means’s homeland), where AIM had a strong following, a place “attempting to promote a left–wing agenda.” Trimbach employed inflammatory language and propaganda to falsely assert that dissenting Indians were “tenacious leftists.” He called AIM a criminal enterprise and its leaders “the American Indian Mafia.” He charged that Means “ha[d] reinvented himself more times than a snake sheds its skin.”3 Trimbach could not comprehend the fact that AIM stood up as an Indigenous resistance force against the might and criminality of colonial domination.

Besides falling victim to the FBI’s dirty tactics and attacks, internal frailties...


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