Growing up in a family steeped in Native activism, I learned at a young age about Russell Means' fight for the people. As a college student, I learned Means wasn't the saintly folk hero I had made him out to be. As an adult, I learned no one is perfect, and few people have fought so hard for his people as Means did.
In many ways, my development as a Native man has been defined by the evolution in my thinking about Means. I can truly say no other public figure has affected me so profoundly, and I felt real sorrow when I learned of his death early Monday morning.
True to himself to the end, Means didn’t give up in August 2011 when he was first diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He fought it using traditional Native healing remedies and prayer and announced earlier this year that he was cancer-free. But within the past few weeks, he had announced the cancer had returned and spread.
A charismatic, uncompromising young activist, Means helped lead the 1973 siege at Wounded Knee along with fellow American Indian Movement leaders Dennis Banks and Vernon Bellecourt. He ran, unsuccessfully, for president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe several times and appeared in movies like “The Last of the Mohicans” and “Natural Born Killers.”
He died early Monday at his ranch in Porcupine, S.D., at the age of 72.
I first met Means as a young college student at the University of South Dakota, where I served as president of the Native student council. The council had invited him to speak, and I gave myself the enviable job of spending the day with him before his speech.
Towering over me as he stood outside his hotel room, Means squinted his eyes and asked if I was related to former South Dakota Sen. Jim Abourezk. I said I was, and he laughed. Jim Abourezk, my great uncle, had served as a lead negotiator for the government during the Wounded Knee takeover in 1973, and he and Means became lifelong friends as a result of that exchange.
I told Means my mother’s family also was a staunch supporter of the American Indian Movement and had invited the activists to camp on their land in the summer of 1975, the same summer that two FBI agents drove onto my grandparents’ land and died in a shootout with AIM.
But I couldn’t help but feel disillusioned by Means’ arrogance and spite toward educated Indians. Then he stood up and spoke to my friends, professors and fellow students at USD, and all my fears dissipated.
In a booming, yet kind, voice, he talked about how backward American society had become and how it had failed to appreciate the role of women. He talked briefly about his time at Wounded Knee and at countless other protests and answered every question posed to him with real humility and thoughtfulness.
What he didn’t talk about was AIM’s involvement in the murder of Anna Mae Aquash, whose 1975 death resulted in the conviction of two former AIM activists, Arlo Looking Cloud and John Graham, decades later.
Authorities believe three AIM members shot and killed Aquash on the Pine Ridge Reservation on the orders of someone in AIM's leadership because they suspected she was an FBI informant. The third AIM member has never been charged.
Means blamed Vernon Bellecourt, another AIM leader, for ordering Aquash's killing. Bellecourt denied the allegations.
"I wanted him to live long enough to be indicted and go to jail for Anna Mae's death," Means told me after learning about Bellecourt’s death in 2007.
Myron Long Soldier, president of the Lincoln Indian Center board of directors, understands Means’ dueling public faces. He first met Means in the late 1970s during a protest march to Mount Rushmore.
Means had long hair at a time when few Native men did, and he inspired a whole generation of Native men and women to take pride in their culture, in themselves, Long Soldier said.
“He made you proud of who you were as an Indian person,” Long Soldier said.
But Long Soldier also knew an uglier side of AIM, the distrust its members fomented among white people living near the reservation. Long Soldier recalls failing to get a job in the Nebraska town of Gordon, near the reservation, because of the anger and fear non-Native business owners felt toward AIM.
“That was a blessing,” he said. “If I had stayed in Gordon, I probably wouldn’t be alive today.
“He was a catalyst in a lot of young people’s lives at that time.”
A catalyst. I can’t think of a better word to describe Means.
Longtime journalist on Native issues Lise Anna Balk said Means will continue to serve as a leader for Native people.
“His passing into the spirit world marks his transition from man into memory, and the cementing of his status as a warrior icon, Native America's rabble-rouser-in-chief,” she said.