- The Life and Legacy of an Oglala Lakotah PatriotRussell Charles Means
Russell Means described himself as an “Oglala Freedom Fighter” and an “Oglala Patriot.” He was born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota on November 10, 1939, and passed into the spirit world at his Pine Ridge ranch on October 22, 2012, less than a month before his seventy-third birthday. “Our dad and husband now walks among our ancestors,” his family stated upon his death.
Russell’s activism and career spanned decades as a politician, actor, writer, and musician, but we will all remember him best for his leadership in the American Indian Movement (AIM). His lifelong commitment was fighting to protect the treaty rights, sovereignty, and integrity of Indigenous peoples throughout the world. After joining AIM in 1968 he helped organize world-changing events that attracted international and national media coverage. Means and AIM once again captured national and international attention in 1973 when he was one of the leaders of the seventy-one-day armed takeover at Wounded Knee, a village on the Pine Ridge Reservation where the United States 7th Cavalry massacred an estimated three hundred unarmed Lakotah men, women, and children in 1890, which some historians depict as an end to the Indian wars.
Means participated in the 1964 protest at Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary with his father, Walter “Hank” Means, who moved the Means family from Pine Ridge to the San Francisco Bay area in 1942 in search of employment. His father worked in the shipyards near San Leandro, [End Page 19] California, where Russell grew up and graduated from high school. After his father’s death in 1967, Means lived on several Indian reservations throughout the United States. While employed by the Office of Economic Opportunity on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota in the late 1960s, he worked with several legal activists on behalf of Lakotah people. In 1968, Means left Rosebud for Cleveland, where he became director of the Cleveland Indian Center. In Cleveland, he worked with Indian community leaders against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, and he filed a defamation lawsuit against Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians that began the protest movement against mascots at all levels of sports.
Joining AIM in 1968, Means was appointed AIM’s first national director in 1970 and the activist organization launched a series of protests. In 1969, Means returned to Alcatraz to participate in the occupation, which was the most prominent protest by American Indians in the United States at the time. On Thanksgiving Day in 1970 he and other AIM activists staged one of their first protests in Boston where they seized the Mayflower II, a replica of the Mayflower, to protest the Puritans’ and U.S. government’s mistreatment of American Indian people. In 1971, Means was a leader of AIM’s takeover of Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills, an area sacred to the Lakotah. The Mount Rushmore incident became the foundation for his lifelong struggle against the Fort Laramie treaties that justified the theft of the Black Hills from the Lakotah Nation.
In November 1972, during the presidential election between Richard Nixon and South Dakota Senator George McGovern, AIM occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) headquarters in Washington, D.C., an incident that drew worldwide media attention. The occupation began as a national caravan called the “Trail of Broken Treaties,” to protest the U.S. government’s record of violating treaties with Indian nations. Tribal governmental leaders criticized the occupation due to the destruction and vandalism that occurred within the building, which amounted to an estimated $2 million worth of damages. AIM also confiscated and destroyed numerous federal documents and records. The group produced a twenty-point position paper after the occupation that was presented to the Department of the Interior and the BIA. The points called for a commission to review treaty violations, restoration of constitutional treaty making authority, a commission to establish new treaties, mandatory relief against treaty rights violations, the restoration of a 110 million–acre native land base, abolishment of the BIA, and numerous other important requests that emphasized sovereignty and self-determination of...