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Economist-Russell Means Obit

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  • John A Imani
    Russell Means Russell Means, an American-Indian activist, died on October 22nd, aged 72 Nov 10th 2012 | from the print edition DRIVING one day through the
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 12, 2012
      Russell Means Russell Means, an American-Indian activist, died on October
      22nd, aged 72

      Nov 10th 2012 | from the print edition

      DRIVING one day through the Din� lands in New Mexico�not �Navajo�, a
      white man�s word�Russell Means suddenly stopped the car. His wife wondered
      why. He had stopped to look at a shepherd among the scrubby hills, walking
      with his flock. No one told that man where to go or what to do. He was
      living with the land. Even better, he was praying, for that was what
      Indians did when they listened. And best of all, he was a free man.
      Silently, fervently, Mr Means saluted him.

      His own God-given sovereignty blazed inside him, igniting the Indian-rights
      movement he led for several decades. He was pure Oglala Lakota, born in the
      sacred Black Hills of South Dakota, and with the build of a chief,
      strapping and tall. His hard, dark eyes seemed to stare from another
      century, re-running ancient battles; his handsome face was crossed with
      scars, though these were less ritual marks than the souvenirs of bar-room
      brawls in Sioux Falls or San Francisco. The long braids (never cut, for
      hair carried memories), the beads, the leather: everything cried out his
      heritage. But being Indian, he fiercely said, didn�t mean dressing in
      feathers like a bird and going to a pow-wow for a couple of hours. No
      Indian was authentic if he wasn�t as free as his ancestors had been.

      He was far, very far, from that. The ramshackle Pine Ridge reservation, his
      birthplace, was still �prisoner-of-war camp 344� in Pentagon records. The
      Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which oversaw such slums, was a den of
      corruption and incompetence. The modern tribal governments were mere
      puppets and collaborators. Indians everywhere (never �Native Americans�,
      another colonisers� word) had been robbed, corralled and turned into cowed,
      self-loathing lemmings in white schools. Every treaty made by the white man
      with the Indians had been broken. America was �the biggest liar in the

      He defied the lies in small ways and large. Not for him a driving licence
      or a fishing permit; the land he drove on, the river he fished in, belonged
      to his people anyway. For 21 years he paid no income tax. He refused to
      carry an Indian ID card. He ran on an activist platform for tribal, state
      and national office (for the Libertarian Party, in 1987), though never
      successfully. All this time he was the leading member of the American
      Indian Movement (AIM), as charismatic as he was divisive. The movement had
      turned him, at 29, away from a drifter�s life and towards a cause.

      At AIM he organised a succession of publicity stunts, including the
      occupation of Alcatraz Island; the seizing of a replica *Mayflower* in
      Boston Harbour on Thanksgiving Day, 1970; a prayer-vigil on top of Mount
      Rushmore, on Lakota holy land; and the occupation and trashing of the BIA�s
      Washington offices in 1972. All were tasters for the most daring stunt of
      all, the occupation in 1973 of the hamlet of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge
      reservation, where in 1890 around 300 Lakota had been killed by the
      American army. Chilled and starving, but steeled by the free-walking
      spirits of the dead, Mr Means and 200 others held out, through blizzards
      and machinegun fire, against massed federal guardsmen for 71 days. He tried
      to dictate the terms of the surrender; the Nixon administration naturally
      reneged on them.

      *An arrow to the sun*

      Most of the time he was angry, an anger so intense that it was almost
      uncontrollable. His drinking did not help. Violence dogged him. Enemies,
      probably agents of the BIA, tried to shoot him. He got into fights, had
      spells in jail, married and then neglected several women in the style of
      the head-buck wandering male. His years in AIM were chaotic; he resigned
      six times before the movement split. While other groups, blacks and women,
      surged ahead, America�s Indians went nowhere much. In 2007 Mr Means and
      several others withdrew from the United States to form the Republic of
      Lakota, covering thousands of square miles in five states. Not even
      brother-Sioux would recognise it; but their freedom was too firmly
      mortgaged to white men.

      He lamented that his people had no natural allies: not Marxists, for they
      were rationalists who reduced men to machines; not Christians, for their
      notion of God was incompatible; not even blacks, for their experiences of
      repression were too different. The revolution he wanted was unlike anyone
      else�s. It was the revolution of the medicine wheel, the sacred hoop of
      life, in which all things ended as they began: in which the world was
      turned slowly but beautifully backwards, towards the freedom in Nature the
      ancestors knew.

      He himself, though, went westwards, to Hollywood. In �The Last of the
      Mohicans� and Disney�s �Pocahontas� in the 1990s he played the sort of
      wise, far-seeing chief he should have been, had everything been different.
      He became the standard Indian, sympathetic enough, but speaking the white
      man�s script under the white man�s direction. Whenever his pride galled too
      much, he walked out.

      As Chief Chingachgook in �Mohicans�, standing on a mountain top, he
      commended his dead son to the ancestors, crying that he would fly towards
      them like a swift arrow into the sun. All dead warriors went that way. So,
      in time, would he. But loudly and often he vowed to return as lightning,
      zapping to ashes in a wild, free blaze the White House and all it stood for.


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