- Remembering a Lakotah WarriorRussell Means
I met Russell Means for the first time in the spring of 2012 when he spoke to a large audience at Mesa Community College in Arizona. Although weakened from illness, he aroused an audience consisting of past and present American Indian Movement members, students, community members, faculty, and staff with a passionate oration about such issues as Indian struggles against colonialism for sovereignty, genocide, human rights, economic independence, religious freedom, and cultural survival. He expressed a theme noting that Indian peoples and nations were at war for their social, political, and economic survival. On several occasions during the next, final months of his life, I had the good fortune to learn more about his philosophies, beliefs, and life’s work.
I never expected to meet Russell Means so the opportunity to do so was humbling. What I knew about him was mainly focused on his involvement with grassroots movements such as the American Indian Movement and more recently, the “Republic of Lakotah” movement in his homeland. In the latter movement, Russell was attempting to regain/retain tribal inherent rights by approaching the United Nations for support. I expected to meet a man who could mentor me in developing ideas to promote nation building in Indigenous communities dealing with colonial genocide. He gave me much more than that.
During our the first meeting in Mesa, aware that I was a law student, he declared, “I hate lawyers.” I responded by saying “Me, too.” Obviously, I did not actually hate lawyers and neither did Russell. However, [End Page 29] I understood what he meant. He detested those lawyers, and everyone else, who accepted the subjugation of Indian nations and were leading Indian governments down the illusionary path of “self-determination.”
Beginning in the early 1970s, Congress crafted this policy with a series of enactments that delegated sovereignty to Indian nations (as opposed to doing so in accordance with the principle of inherent sovereign power) in such areas of education, contracting federal programs serving Indian populations, religious freedom, and health care. Arguably, the self-determination era came into existence because of the consciousness-raising discourses and protests of the American Indian Movement (AIM), a grassroots group founded by Dennis Banks, Clyde Bellecourt, and other Indian nationalists. Because of his charisma, intelligence, and oratory skills, Russell soon became a leading spokesman for AIM and Indian activism.
I saw clearly that Russell was as passionate in being part of the solution to the oppression of Indigenous peoples in his last days as he was when he took up arms to defend the treaty/human rights of his own community as a young man. Reflecting on a shortcomings of AIM, he stated, “I made the same mistakes my ancestors made.” He was referring to the broken promises U.S. officials had made after the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation to AIM and to Lakotahs in other points in time. His reasoning was that Indigenous people believe in the human spirit to do what is right and just. That belief in the human spirit equates to faith in humankind—the same faith his ancestors had when they signed those treaties. Such treaties now can be broken under federal law, even if Congress has no reason to do so (see Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock, 187 U.S. 553 ; Congress can unilaterally break treaties protected by the U.S. Constitution even in bad faith).
He strongly believed that Indian nations should use an inherent rights approach coming from Indian culture instead of accepting U.S. government and state grants of rights. He held that these offerings were gifts, not inherent rights. He stressed that a gift can be taken away anytime but a right can only be taken away illegally. I knew Russell had dedicated his life to social movements, but I didn’t realize until after knowing him that his focus was on exercising inherent rights rooted in tribal organic law.
His approach to reaching out to the UN was based on the fact that the United States had not upheld its treaty obligations even though they are expressed plain and clear in the U.S. Constitution, that...