Reservations Indeed — Penthouse Interview
When Russell Means first attracted attention, even fellow Indians scoffed. What kind of an anachronism was this man, wearing beads and moccasins, long black hair, and pomaded braids? Another faithful sidekick for the Lone Ranger? Tonto’s heir?
The answer was soon obvious. Means intended to battle the white man, not serve him. He began to demonstrate, picket, shout, and lobby on behalf of Indians. And soon government agencies were tapping his phones and proffering perjured testimony against him in court. They arrested and jailed him numerous times on charges ranging from arson to rioting. Though today Means is free, it is only as a parolee from a four-year jail sentence. He continues his war. “Those of us who have painted our faces,” he promises, “have taken a vow to die for what we believe in. We Indians have never been afraid to die, because we know where we’re going.”
Russell Means, cofounder of the American Indian Movement, has become a symbol of a revitalized people seeking freedom from a century of oppression. Throughout the 1970s, like a guerrilla theater, Means captured a national audience and alerted it to the plight — and the power — of the indigenous American. He orchestrated a prayer vigil on top of Mount Rushmore, claiming the monument was an insult to nature; he sued the Cleveland Indians baseball team, arguing that the team mascot, Chief Wahoo, demeaned the image of Indians; he led 1,300 other Indians into Gordon, Nebr., to protest the suspicious death of Raymond Yellow Thunder. Means and 77 other Indians were arrested in Custer, S.Dak., after rampaging through the town, incensed that a white man had received reduced charges for the stabbing death of Wesly Bad Heart Bull. In 1972 Means helped plan the Trail of Broken Treaties Caravan, an election-week march on Washington that ended with the takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs-which Means and his followers immediately renamed the Native American Embassy.
The most prolonged and dramatic battle of his career began on February 27, 1973, when Means and several hundred armed supporters seized a church and trading post in the village of Wounded Knee, S.Dak. It was there, 83 years earlier, that the American Indian Wars ended: the U.S. Seventh Cavalry slaughtered Chief Big Foot and some 350 members of his tribe, mostly women and children. There was no massacre in 1973. Under federal siege and on national television, Means and his followers held the town for 71 days, exchanging gunfire with the FBI and earning support from church and civil-rights groups — which airlifted supplies to the occupiers — across the country. “If the federal government once again turns a deaf ear and closes its eyes to the Indians,” said Means, “the Indian Wars will start all over again. There will be death. I don’t consider that a threat. That’s reality.”
Though maligned by many as a renegade, the leader of the Wounded Knee occupation was never far from harsh realities. Born into poverty on the Pine Ridge Reservation (South Dakota) on November 10, 1939, Russell Charles Means was the oldest son of Hank and Theodora Means. He grew up in a Vallejo, Calif., public housing project but remembers, from the few extended visits to Pine Ridge, that he was never far from his Sioux heritage. His grandfather warned him of the dangers of the white world. He and his brother Dale would watch in anger Indians being killed in the movies. They played cowboys and Indians with the white kids in Vallejo. “Sometimes we beat the hell out of them. I didn’t even know why. I guess they represented the cavalry to me. But we had them all wanting to be Indians.”
Young Means attended racially mixed schools, maintained good grades, and was an enthusiastic boy scout and a fine athlete. But at the age of 16 he transferred to the almost entirely white San Leandro High School. Taunted and barraged by racial slurs, he quickly learned that victimization of the American Indian was more than film fantasy or historical abstraction. He soon dropped out of school and began drifting. For the next ten years he worked at odd jobs across the country: picking tomatoes, teaching ballroom dancing, sorting mail, shoveling elephant manure at a circus. He became addicted to heroin, kicked the habit, then got hooked on alcohol.
By the late sixties he had wandered into a job at the Office of Economic Opportunity in Cleveland, was a husband and a father trying to emulate the white man’s ways. But it was then that he met fellow Indians Dennis Banks and Clyde Bellecourt and their nascent American Indian Movement. At first put off by the moccasins and belts and sashes and Indian jewelry that the group’s members wore, Means was soon convinced that AIM was serious business. At that point the Russell Means who had been attempting to become assimilated into white society transformed himself into a twentieth-century Indian renegade, fighting to dramatize his people’s plight.
Until Means and AIM appeared, American Indians were a forgotten people, the poorest of all ethnic minorities in the United States, shunted onto reservations in barely habitable regions of the country. The average yearly family income among the nearly 1 million population was $1,500. Unemployment varied from 40 to 80 percent. Life expectancy was 44 years, 20 years less than what it was for whites. Infant mortality among the Indian population was three times the national average; alcoholism and suicide were rampant.