Russell Means and Wounded Knee

GUEST BLOGGER: Kat Dehring allowed me to use this article she wrote.  Thanks Kat!

            History has a series of turning points that are defined by the people who participate in them. It is these individuals who become a part of the fabric of the event and it could be argued that without their presence the outcome could have been different.  Consider the American Revolution without Thomas Payne’s pamphlet “Common Sense”, or the African American Civil Rights movement, had Rosa Parks not refused to give up her seat to a white bus passenger, the course of history would have changed.  Historical events are defined with these people whose sense of purpose was such that they could not stand idly by, when arguably that would have been the safest course of action. Russell Means is one of those people; he refused to accept the injustice and abuse of his people, the American Indian.

            Russell Means was born on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation in 1939 (Means, Russel Freedom), and one of his earliest memories was of being yelled at by a teacher, when she told him, “You know, kid, you’re never going to be anything. You’re going to be just like the rest of them.” (Means 25) She was inferring that his race would determine the outcome of his life.  Another time as a child, when head lice where discovered at the school he was singled out as the source, due to his being an Indian (Means 25). Russell learned that there was some unspoken inferiority that came with his heritage. He was often singled out for punishments and unjust accusations based on being Native American. In many ways this formed the basis for him to want to know some pride in his people and fairness for them.

            Means Became involved in the AIM (American Indian Movement) in 1968, he had been very vocal on speaking for Indian rights with an organization called National Urban Indian Movement (NUIO) and was considered a good spokesman. NUIO was modeled on the early black Civil Rights moment under Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and wanted to be nonviolent and non-confrontational, they wore suits and tried to meet with white society on its terms. Then when Russell Means first met the AIM leaders he thought their use of native dress and jewelry to be a bit of a joke. When the AIM started confronting churches, politicians, and other native groups with the hypocrisy and underhanded dealings with Native Americans Means changed his mind and joined. (Means 148-153) Means understood he was becoming a target and that many people had little love for native peoples and saw them as a nuisance, much like coyotes and wolves. (Means 155) For things to change Russell Means knew that it meant challenging authority and a concept that the Indian stereotype was the reality of his people.

            The road to the confrontation of the United States Government in the takeover of   Wounded Knee in 1973 was eighty-three years in the making. Many of the Oglala Sioux, on the Pine Ridge Reservation grew up with stories of the 1890 massacre and this quote from PBS documentary “We Shall Remain, Wounded Knee Part Five,” outlines basically what happened:


Narrator: In the frigid winter of 1890, Chief Big Foot was leading a group of Lakota, mainly women and children, to shelter on the Pine Ridge reservation. On the morning of December 29th, they wereattacked by the U.S. Army on the banks of Wounded Knee Creek.

Charlotte Black Elk, Oglala historian, Oglala Lokota tribe: My great grandmother is Katy War Bonnet. She was a survivor at Wounded Knee. When the shooting broke out, she and her sister, Kakeek-sa-we, ran down into the ravine and made it to some plum bushes. And she could hear the firing and the firing and hollering and then finally it was quiet.

Narrator: More than 300 Lakota people lay dead. After remaining untouched in the ice and snow for three days, they were buried in a mass grave. The massacre would mark the brutal end of centuries of armed Indian resistance. For those who came nearly 100 years later, Wounded Knee was sacred land. (PBS Public Broadcasting: Transcripts).

            When the Oglala marched to Wounded Knee with Russell Means and other AIM members it was with the understanding that like their ancestors, they might have to give the ultimate sacrifice to get their grievances and message across. The rallying cry of “Remember Wounded Knee” was not only one to embolden the Oglala, but to also make the outside world aware of the past atrocities and to shame the government if they committed a second one. The AIM and Means was very aware of the power of that symbol (Rich).

            Of the many grievances listed at the time of the occupation two were ones that AIM and the Oglala refused to back down on. First was the abuse of fellow American Indians by Dick Wilson, whose election as Oglala Tribal Chairman was contested, and who maintained a goon squad to enforce his rule on the Pine Ridge Reservation. It was well known that anyone who crossed him ended up beaten or dead, and those who supported him could gain favors, food, and money allotments (Reinhardt). The Oglala wanted Wilson gone and elections of tribal officials without interference from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, who had supported Dick Wilson. Second on the list was the failure of the US Government to uphold the treaties and return the Black Hills to the Sioux (Means 261). At the forefront dealing with government officials, law enforcement and the goon squad was Russell Means, the face of AIM.  Means in archival news footage states, “The leadership of the Oglala Sioux here present in Wounded Knee have declared Wounded Knee an independent country. From here further, if any spy from the United States of America is found within our borders, he will be dealt with as any spy in a time of war and be shot before a firing squad.” (PBS Public Broadcasting: Transcripts). Means knew that this was inflammatory, but he wanted the news coverage and he wanted to make the point that that the Native Americans were a nation of their own as promised in those long forgotten treaties.

Means understood that standing in the open and giving these press statements a sharp shooter could kill him at any time and that when the standoff eventually ended, the government and police would have a face and a name to make an example of. Finally on day thirty-eight, Chief Bad Cob, medicine man Leonard Crow Dog, and Russell Means went to Washington, D.C. for a promised meeting at the White House to discuss the terms of ending the protest and occupation at Wounded Knee. Means was arrested and the talks broke down over the surrendering of weapons (PBS Public Broadcasting: Transcripts). While Means did get released from jail under bond, he was under orders by a judge to not return to Wounded Knee. Means honored the order physically, but his participation in the event was not over. Russell Means gave speeches the University of Kansas, UCLA, and finally a press conference Los Angeles where he talked about Wounded Knee and injustice to his people. Means was arrested again when an off the cuff answer to a reporter’s question, “What will you do when you win?” was “Then we take over South Dakota” this flippant answer judged to be in violation of his bond (Means 289) This led to his detention not with the police but the FBI and bonds as high as $135,000 (Means 294). Once again an unfair standard was applied to Russell Means based on his race.  

            In the years that followed Russell Means’ impact on the occupation of Wounded Knee, was measured in his ability to talk about native struggles and   injustice.  History will remember Means in fiery speeches that point out that his people where not a quaint anachronism, deserved respect, and wanted what they had been promised in treaties. Russell Means understood the impact of iconic images, he was aware of his image in braids, with Lakota jewelry, telling armed men with guns that they, (the American Indian), had had enough of the governments’ empty promises. Means later parlayed his public image into acting roles that no only respectfully portrayed Native Americans, but also helped financed immersion schools for Indian children to preserve their language and culture. (Clark) Would there have been a protest at Wounded Knee without Russell Means?  Undoubtedly, the answer is yes, but would it have accomplished so much for awareness and inspired so many to take up the cause for their rights? Would the occupiers have had the strength to hold out as long as they did without Means as a front man willing to take risks? History will record this man as someone who indeed deserves to be remembered in the same light as Rosa Parks, and Thomas Payne.

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