Russ Means, titular leader of the American Indian Movement (Ca. 70s - present), always had a complicated role with Indian people. On the one hand, he was instrumental in numerous AIM occupations of the 70s (especially Čhaŋkpé Ópi Wakpála…Wounded Knee), and generally brought significant awareness to the problems endemic to Indian Country; particularly those issues salient to border towns near the Rez.
On the other hand, he was a wife-beating, egotistical, rockstar wannabe who sold so much goodwill out for his slice of the pie. He capitalized on noble savage mythos and made Indian people to be gun-toting, hair-triggered caricatures. He cavorted with celebrities (looking at you Marlon Brando), ran for-profit Sundances, usurped the tribal political process, and was generally a bully.
I had my run-ins with Means before….I helped prosecute him for the savage beating of his then-Dine (Navajo) girlfriend and the fleecing of her father…an Elder whom he had involuntarily committed to the Nebraska border town of Gordon. I was shot at and generally intimidated by his cronies such that I had to move from Pine Ridge to a city outside the Rez, get a Conceal Carry license, and carry a pistol at all times. When I sold my Ford Ranger, it still had three bullet holes in it where my car was waylaid in Red Cloud, SD.
Then, I think of the moments where he directly, and positively, impacted my life. There are the moments -weeks after the shooting- where he and I worked to create a roadblock to keep alcohol filtering in from White Clay, NE. I think to the time where he assisted me in finding an Elder who lived in -no shit, a tipi…and was kind enough to locate a Lakota translator…all to help this man make a “white man’s will” so that his trust land would remain in trust.
Alcoholism, poverty, lack of jobs, outsourced adoptions of Indian children, and profligate racism have done (and continue to do) very bad things to my family on this, and other, reservations. Russ cared about every one of those issues and busted his ass all 73 years of his life to remedy them. He loved his people, no matter how haughty the Oglala seem to outsiders. His work, and my blood ties to others on Pine Ridge, drove me to law school…it was that reason that I chose this path. It was an honor to have done so, and without Russ and AIM I would have not given it a second thought.
Like all men, he was not so much good or bad as an amalgam of varying shades of gray. On the balance I’d like to think his impact for Indian people outpaced his own individual capacity for evil. Is the personal ever really separate from the political? I’ll leave that to others to decide. However, on this day of his passing, my only wish is that they bury his heart at Wounded Knee.