Russell Means was not only a visionary, he was also keeper of memories. Russell was both an orator and a man of action. Inspired by a legacy of strength, Russell was one who walked his talk and inspired others to follow his example.
Many words have been written and spoken about his highly publicized leadership roles during the Red Power era. This is important but just as significant were the little-known or unheralded actions Russell did to support Indigenous Peoples.
Russell was one of a very small group of leaders who responded to many calls from Indigenous Peoples and arrived to help out in whatever way he could. From personal experience, I’ve witnessed Russell travel at his own expense to support a cause even when it was not something in which he had a personal stake. The compelling reason was often that a small group of Natives were attempting to stand up to some injustice and decided to reach out to Russell.
Russell was often described as a figure of publicity, but I’ve seen him avoid the spotlight in many public gatherings and rallies. At times, organizers would have to encourage him to take a turn on the microphone or suggest that he share words of inspiration with those around him. When news cameras were on, Russell wouldn’t hesitate to do an interview and call out the local media if they had an anti-NDN bias in their reporting. His concern was not with being a NDN darling media but giving NDNs a voice in the media.
Another trait of Russell’s that I witnessed was that he led from the front and took the same risks as anyone else. Whether that meant going to jail, standing vigil in uncomfortable weather or carrying out tasks while exhausted, Russell Means wasn’t one to skip out on us. Many times we’d complete a rally, and Russell would jump in his van to travel to a different state so he could fulfill another request for his support. A friend and I had a discussion about this, and we agreed that Russell was someone we could depend on while many young NDN men we knew who spoke loudly about supporting Native Peoples always seemed to have good excuses for never showing up for anything.
Russell was also someone who was willing to share a needed perspective with young people. He often spoke to small groups of Native youth about what motivated and inspired him. I’ve listened to Russell share lessons from his personal history in the early AIM (American Indian Movement) days up to the present and what he’s learned from them. Often those lessons had to do with perseverance, sacrifice and compassion.
Several years ago, I was struggling with how one overcomes anger and hatred when violence is inflicted on them for seeking justice for Indigenous Peoples. It was a period when many Native friends were the victims of police brutality, and they were wondering if the pain was worth it.
Russell was visiting in town so I sought him out and had a discussion with him. I related that many of my friends were questioning their choices — choices that brought public attacks from other NDNs for some, physical violence for others and for all, an overall sense of personal setbacks bordering on humiliation.
After listening and thinking about it for a bit, this is what he said: “The way I’ve seen it is that every injury I took, every sacrifice I made and every personal cost I paid has been done on behalf of our people and ancestors. So I take these things as a badge of honor, and they are things that I am proud of.”
He continued on with giving advice about how I could help out those who were going through tough times. He drew on his first hand experience and shared stories of his younger years. As we sat there, I realized how much of an honor it was to know this man: Russell Means, Oglala and Indigenous Patriot.
This article is reprinted with permission from “The Thing About Skins” on IndianCountryTodayMediaNetwork.com.