Russell Means was a wounded warrior in the inequal fight for freedom and civil rights between the American Indian and the Federal government. He was a hero to his people and an inspiration to the rest of us. Russell Means died on October 22, 2012 on his beloved Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was 72.
Russell Means was an activist. He agitated people. He was a propellant for change. He cared about history. He was the burr in your boot and he wanted American Indians to have a stake in the nation’s prosperity:
He rose to national attention as a leader of the American Indian Movement in 1970 by directing a band of Indian protesters who seized the Mayflower II ship replica at Plymouth, Mass., on Thanksgiving Day. The boisterous confrontation between Indians and costumed “Pilgrims” attracted network television coverage and made Mr. Means an overnight hero to dissident Indians and sympathetic whites. …
And in a 1973 protest covered by the national news media for months, he led hundreds of Indians and white sympathizers in an occupation of Wounded Knee, S.D., site of the 1890 massacre of some 350 Lakota men, women and children in the last major conflict of the American Indian wars. The protesters demanded strict federal adherence to old Indian treaties, and an end to what they called corrupt tribal governments.
In the ensuing 71-day standoff with federal agents, thousands of shots were fired, two Indians were killed and an agent was paralyzed. Mr. Means and his fellow protest leader Dennis Banks were charged with assault, larceny and conspiracy. But after a long federal trial in Minnesota in 1974, with the defense raising current and historic Indian grievances, the case was dismissed by a judge for prosecutorial misconduct.
My first exposure to Russell Means, and the American Indian Movement, was as an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where Mick Casale, a New York Playwright and NYU Playwriting Professor, was teaching in the UNL Theatre Department for a semester.
Part of Mick’s visit was dedicated to performing a staged reading of his newest play — Red Power — and the show was an archival and dramatic monument to Russell Means and Dennis Banks and the AIM.
Even though everyone involved in the reading was from Nebraska — or attending the University Of… — few of us knew the rich history of the flatlands territory and the experience of the American Indian in the United States. Mick, originally from Minnesota Indian country before he moved to New York City to find his fame, taught us all about the meaning of The Movement and the mistakes and successes found during the re-emergence of the American Indian as a political, but not yet a financial, force in the nation.
What Mick’s play showed us was that we didn’t know everything we thought we knew, and in after-performance discussions with the audience, we were all able to examine our past, and the plight of the American Indian among the indifferent in us, and in any remedies or reparations that might be needed and enforced.
Not everyone agreed with the politics of Mick’s play, but there was never any doubt that he was serving the moral duty of the Playwright in Society by bringing up genuine national scars for reevaluation that still sting us to this day, and in memorializing the painful life of Russell Means, we need to realize just what his sacrifices and errors and human tendencies mean to the all of us in the larger picture of a new, and ever-evolving, American Dream.