Russell Means: Warrior for the People


The life of Russell Means, Lakota warrior for the people whose stance of never backing down inspired a generation of Native American rights, was celebrated on Wednesday, Oct. 24, in Kyle, South Dakota. Means piercing words and clarity of style on American Indian rights, placed him at the forefront of the struggle of the American Indian Movement that spans four decades.

Means, 72, passed to the Spirit World on Monday with the Morning Star at 4:44 am, at home in Porcupine, South Dakota, on Pine Ridge, surrounded by his wife Pearl, family and friends. Means ashes will be scattered in the Black Hills.

Means was honored in his homeland as horseback riders arrived with his cremated remains at Little Wound School. One horse, for Means spirit, had no rider. The remains were brought in with prayers by Means son Tatanka Means.

Russell’s brother Bill Means said a new generation will be inspired by him and carry forward his spirit.

“He will be replaced by thousands. One person is not going to replace him, but through his work, through his family, he will be replaced 1,000 times over.”

Chief Leonard Crow Dog, Lakota medicine man who participated in the Occupation of Wounded Knee, said Means was first and foremost a spiritual leader. However, like Crazy Horse, a warrior was needed and that is what Means transformed into.

Speaking on the birth of the American Indian Movement, Clyde Bellecourt described how he read Black Elk Speaks over and over in prison. Clyde said he began dreaming of those images and this gave birth to the American Indian Movement.

Bellecourt said Russell Mean’s spirit is alive and he could see it in the spirit of the young people present at the memorial, and in Russell’s children.

“The Movement is inside of you, inside of each one of you, burning in your heart,” Bellecourt said.

Speakers remembered Means from the Trail of Broken Treaties and the Occupation of Wounded Knee. Lakotas shared how Chief Frank Fools Crow had designated Means as a spiritual leader.

Larry Anderson, Dine’ from Fort Defiance, Ariz., and fellow member of the American Indian Movement, said Means taught the children about the traditional way of life and how to be a leader.

“I met Russell Means during the Wounded Knee takeover, just down the road.” Anderson said he was one of five Navajos present during the takeover of Wounded Knee.

Russell Means and Dennis Banks at Wounded Knee.

Anderson said after he received his education, he heard about Wounded Knee. “I told my brother who was going to school with me, that is where I belong. I want to be in Wounded Knee.”

“It is a great honor to be here this evening with my nephews and nieces and grandchildren of Russell Means. He was a great man. He was a great leader.”

“Russell Means has given us many ways of protecting our culture, our traditions and our people.”

“We will always be allies,” Anderson said of Dine’ and Lakota, speaking of the commitments made through the Sundance and other ceremonies.

Anderson concluded with words to Means in the Dine’ language, beginning with a greeting and gratitude.

During the evening presentations, Madonna Thunder Hawk described the takeover of Wounded Knee and the firefights. “We were in the medic building, listening to it on the walkie talkie.” She said there was a call for medics as one firefight was going on, as one person had been hit. They tried to negotiate a cease fire, but it wasn’t possible. As she was rushing up the hill, she looked and saw one man running behind the medics with a stretcher, and it was Larry Anderson.

At the memorial, Cheyenne Arapahoe arrived from Oklahoma and spoke of Means and how he gave them strength to maintain their language and culture, in times of the southern battle against racism.

“Russell Means never left his people behind,” said one of the Lakota elders. He also said that Russell created the Yellow Thunder Camp in the Black Hills and upheld the Lakota Treaty, he said.

“All of the treaty lands are still ours, he did that.”

Means never backed down.

From tackling the BIA superintendent on the Navajo Nation during a citizen’s arrest, to leading the Columbus Day protests in Denver, to demanding that the Lewis and Clark Expedition leave South Dakota, to the formation of the Lakotah Republic in his homeland, Means was a symbol of the bold fearlessness of the American Indian Movement.

Whether he was facing off with BIA officials in Washington, or confronting them on the Stronghold in the Badlands where Lakotas fled after the Massacre of Wounded Knee, Means symbolized the AIM stance of never backing down.

Means fight for human rights extended beyond the Occupation of Wounded Knee and the US borders, to solidarity with Palestine. Although Means was hospitalized with throat cancer and unable to speak at the recent Russell Tribunal on Palestine in New York, his stance was clear. Means said what is happening now to Palestinians is what happened to American Indians. “Every policy now the Palestinians are enduring was practiced on the American Indian,” Means said earlier in an interview.

“What the American Indian Movement says is that the American Indians are the Palestinians of the United States, and the Palestinians are the American Indians of Europe.”

When Bolivian President Evo Morales took the lead in global climate talks, the defense of Mother Earth, and upholding the Rights of Nature, Means said, “This is what tribal councils should be doing.”

During his lifetime of fighting for justice, Means demanded that the US honor treaties and return stolen lands. He said the only people who get ahead are those who sell out to the colonial system. He said the United States does not want to be reminded of the smallpox blankets, theft, colonialism and mistreatment of the American Indian. Further, he said most Americans do not realize that the financial collapse of this country is only beginning. Americans cannot continue the lifestyles of consumers when there is no money.

Means said Indian lands have become open-air concentration camps. “If you chose to stay on the reservation, you are guaranteed to be poor, unless you are part of the colonial apparatus set up by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, set up the United States,” he said.

On Indian lands, everyone fights to be part of the tribal governments because that is where the money is. Everyone fights to be part of the colonial system. “The only way you can be part of the colonial system is to obey.”

“Our grandmother the Mother Earth is tired of the human race.”

As always, Means perception preceded others when he described the US Listening Conferences, as the US State Department gathered testimony on human rights for the United Nations.

Means said, “Once again, the occupation government of the United States of America has trotted out its dogs and ponies to provide a smokescreen and diversion from its continuing crimes against the indigenous peoples and nations of the Western Hemisphere.“

“As we can see, many indigenous people have been duped to participate, yet again, in a lying and duplicitous process of the United States.”

When Means passed to the Spirit World, imprisoned activist Leonard Peltier shared words honoring Means. “Russell Means will always be an icon whenever the American Indian Movement is spoken of and whenever people talk about the changes that took place, the changes that are taking place now for Indian people.

“For Indian people it never ends, we don’t have a linear existence, so I know I will see Russell again, and I take comfort in that thought. For men like Russell Means don’t come along in a lifetime very often. He was truly an inspiration for all of us younger guys at the time. He had good words to say, he was eloquent when he spoke them, and he spoke English as clearly and precisely and as articulate as any one I have ever heard speak. And he knew what he was talking about. And I know all of you out there, as well as myself, will always remember our friend, our brother and fellow activist, and how he stood with us to recapture the freedoms we’ve lost, and protect the ones that we still have, and bring about a better future for our people, and all people of this Mother Earth, who’s nature is in peril.”

The family of Russell Means invited the public to the gathering, Honoring the Life of Russell Means. “The honoring will highlight his life, leadership and the eternal fire that he re-ignited throughout Indian Country,” the family said.

This Honoring will be the first of four opportunities for the people to honor his life. The next three Honorings are tentatively scheduled as follows: Second Honoring at Wounded Knee’73 Occupation Memorial (Feb. 2013); Third Honoring at Wind Cave State Park, South Dakota (June 2013); Fourth Honoring on Russell’s birthday (Nov. 10, 2013) at location to be determined.

Glenn Morris was alongside Means at the Denver protests, and with him when he passed. Morris recognized the greatness of Means life and his vision.

“In recognition of one of the primary, visionary leaders in beginning the contemporary work of international indigenous peoples’ liberation, of which we are all beneficiaries. Without Russell, it is doubtful that many of us who do this work would have had the honor of continuing to defend our peoples in this way. Indigenous leaders, ranging from Rigoberta Menchu Tum, to Subcomandante Marcos to Evo Morales, have said that their work was inspired and motivated by the words, actions and example of Russell Means. May we all remember the historic contributions of Russell Means to the freedom and self-determination of all indigenous peoples, everywhere.”

Brenda Norrell has been a news reporter of American Indian news for 30 years and lived on the Navajo Nation for 18 years. Her interviews with Russell Means spanned 30 years. She currently publishes Censored News from the border region.


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