Russell Means-Native American Warrior
by D.S. Mitchell
Champion of Native American Rights
Russell Means was a champion of Native American civil rights. Means drew public attention to the mistreatment of native people “with audacious and controversial actions that were equal parts protest and theater,” said biographer Michael Ray.
From the 1970’s thru the early 2000’s Russell Means was as famous as Sitting Bull. Means, tall and ruggedly handsome with long traditional braids was a charismatic Native American actor, activist, painter, politician, musician and writer. Means was born in 1939 on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation. His Lakota name “Wanbli Ohitika” means “Brave Eagle.” His mother was a Yankton Dakota Sioux and his father an Oglala Lakota Sioux.
A Harsh Life
His parents left the reservation in 1942 at the beginning of WWII to escape the poverty and depression of the reservation. They settled in the San Francisco Bay Area where his father worked in the shipyards. In his 1995 autobiography Russell Means described a harsh life with his alcoholic father and abused mother. He himself describes how he fell into “years of truancy, crime and drugs”, before finding purpose in the American Indian Movement.
1964 Alcatraz Occupation
Means and his father joined a protest occupation of Alcatraz Island, in San Francisco Bay, CA. in 1964. The protest lasted a mere 24 hours. Native Americans were protesting against the U.S. government for treaty violations. In his autobiography Russell Means remembered the 1964 Alcatraz event as the catalyst for a life time of activism for protecting the rights of Native Americans.
The American Indian Movement
In 1968 Dennis Banks, Clyde Bellecourt, Eddie Benton Banai, and George Mitchell came together to form the American Indian Movement. AIM was a militant American Indian civil rights organization. The goals expanded quickly, broadening to “turn the attention of Indian people toward a renewal of spirituality which would impart the strength of resolve needed to reverse the ruinous policies of the United States, Canada, and other colonialist governments of Central and South America.” AIM’s goals were economic independence, revitalization of traditional culture, protection of legal rights, and most especially, autonomy over tribal areas and the restoration of lands that they believed had been seized illegally.
A New Voice
Into a violent and turbulent times Russell Means emerged as the voice of AIM. In 1970 he became the first National Director of the American Indian Movement. Aim became involved in many violent and highly publicized protests in reaction to abhorrent government policies toward American Indians during this time.
Modern Day Warriors
Means’ and other AIM members cultivated a tough persona which they felt was necessary to face the “dark violence of police brutality and the voiceless despair of Indian people.” The view of these activists as “warriors” was essential to the movement.