Means Walks On, Mouvement Lives On
American Indian activist Russell Means pierced ‘Buckskin Curtain’
On Oct. 22, Indian rights activist Russell Means passed on after a magnificent life of struggle to better the lives of American Indians.
Means obviously had a tremendous impact on Native American struggles of the latter part of the 20th century and he will be sorely missed. But moreover, his passing was a huge loss not just for Native America, not just for all of America, but for the world. He became the warrior conscience of the U.S. as a nation and exposed the oppression of American Indians to the globe.
Means reawakened Native people to the need for direct action in dealing with the “powers that be.” Contrary to popular belief, there had been a long, unbroken string of Native activism throughout the 20th century, but the government-leaning mainstream news media had for the most part managed to keep information of Indian resistance hidden behind the “Buckskin Curtain.”
What distinguished Means and the American Indian Movement (AIM) was that they were able to break through the “curtain” with justifiably sensational tactics that the media could not ignore. Wounded Knee and other protests had to be covered, and that riveted the moral conscience of America and the entire world. All just-minded citizens, of all races, creeds and colors morally supported the actions of AIM. Public opinion in the U.S. was on the side of Means and the warriors of AIM. One thing that was always said about AIM in those days was that they would never lose a fight by default; when called upon, AIM always showed up.
It has been said that American Indians are the “miners’ canary,” which indicates that justice in this society can be measured by how Native people are treated. Given that criteria, this country is still sadly lacking in that category.
As for Means, he started out working in an office as a computer operator. He was trained as an accountant, was a straight-A student and was awarded a scholarship to Arizona State University. Indian youth, in particular, should find this inspirational at a time when nearly half of Native young people don’t even graduate from high school. Uncompromising to the end, when he was first diagnosed with esophageal cancer in summer 2011, he announced he was eschewing mainstream medical treatment in favor of traditional Native medicine. Through it all, he remained the iconic symbol of American Indian resistance to the ongoing centuries of the race war conducted against Native Americans by the U.S. government.
In the mid-1970s, I had the priceless opportunity to meet Means, the Bellecourts, Jimmie Durham and others prominent in the movement at an AIM rally. I actually remember him as rather quiet. In fact, I don’t recall him even speaking onstage at the event. Throughout the later years, Means remained a steadfast fighter for Indian rights. Among his many accomplishments: He founded the first radio station on his reservation and the first health clinic and also was a founder of the International Treaty Council, which was responsible for the U.N. Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which impacted peoples worldwide.
Means was a source of boundless inspiration to all who were committed to the “Cause.” Means walks on, but the movement lives on.