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  • Russell MeansWhy He Matters to You
  • Bayard Johnson (bio)

“Wake up, there’s a war goin’ on.” This was Russell Means’s way of waking you up when he called at zero-dark-thirty in the morning, starting his day. Russell always got up with the Morning Star.

But on this Monday morning, October 22, Russell Means’s wife, Pearl, was on the phone. She was calling to tell us that Russell had joined the ancestors earlier that morning. He walked on with the Morning Star.

A little over a year before, Russell and Pearl stopped by for dinner. His neck was swollen and puffy, swallowing and talking were painful. He’d just come from a doctor’s appointment. “On Monday,” he said as he sat down at the table, “they’re going to give me my ETA to the Spirit World.”

When the doctor told Russell he had terminal cancer, Russell turned to look at Pearl to see how she was taking the news. They told him his best option was a radical tracheotomy. He would be confined to a wheelchair, unable to walk, talk, eat, or swallow. Life expectancy was two months to two years.

“Sure, they’d like to cut out my tongue,” said Russell. “Forget it.”

The Indian way is that everyone has a turn to talk, and everyone else listens politely. Russell taught me that early on. When everyone agrees, the argument, if there was one, is over.

Many people wrote about Russell after he left. Some comments were insightful, some asinine, the rest in between. In some respects it was like hearing blind men trying to describe an elephant. Everyone talked about different aspects of Russell—things the commentator cared [End Page 34] about. Often they seemed to be describing entirely different people. Russell took on a special and unique meaning for every writer.

Those who didn’t like his criticism of the Sandinistas accused him of being a self-promoting publicity hound. Those who admired Russell’s willingness to die for principles they agreed with described him as a prophet and holy man, a hero who led from the front, his generation’s Crazy Horse. Most interesting, in a way, were the critiques of Russell’s motives written by people who had never met him, weren’t well informed on the issues, but felt compelled to lend their insights anyway.

It’s inevitable that people will talk about heroes, and form opinions about them, and then try to cram their opinion down your throat. Russell was personally offended by a big green sign near the start of Interstate 10 in Santa Monica: “Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Highway.” Russell was very public with his opinion that any society that could worship Christopher Columbus as a hero is seriously deranged. Slaver, murderer, pedophile, bad navigator—the list goes on. The sign on Interstate 10 is often splattered with red paint.

Russell had a better idea: “We’re takin’ out that sign.” Someone had a pickup truck we could borrow, and we could rent a chain saw at Home Depot. The plan was to cut down the sign, throw it in the back of the pickup, drive it up to South Dakota, and post it on the driveway leading to his ranch, formerly the Indian agent’s house, in Porcupine, South Dakota. That way, the CC Transcon Highway would be about a quarter-mile long, and at the end of it, Russell Means would be waiting for you. It’s the end of the month, rent is due . . . pay up.

Over forty years ago, on the 405 in LA, Russell Means was a fugitive, pulled over on the side of the freeway, jacklighted by a dozen cop spotlights, with ten guns trained on him, and a bullhorn telling him, “For the last time, raise your hands over your head!” Russell said to himself, “I’m not doing it.” What was going through his mind as he heard the “click-click-click” of cops cocking their revolvers? “Mother, I’m coming home.”

All day Monday we waited for information about the memorial service. In Lakotah spirituality, the spirit of the departed is released on the fourth...


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