Russell Means, the American Indian Movement leader

Ruby Rohrlich (rohrlich@GWIS2.CIRC.GWU.EDU)
Wed, 22 Nov 1995 22:02:22 -0500

The September-October, l995 issue of the magazine Modern Maturity (AARP)
carried an interview with Russell by the author John Edgar Wideman.
"Russell Means is excited. The 6th decade of his life is upon him and
he's finding it as demanding, exhilarating, unpredictable as the lst
five. A new career as a move actor beckons. His name and face are
becoming familiar to millions who recall only vaguely, if at all, his days
as a leader, and more than once, nearly a martyr, of AIM, THE AMERICAN
INDIAN MOVEMENT organized in the late 60s.
"On one of those tumultuous days -- 2/27, l973 -- Means with
OCCUPATION OF WOUNDED Knee, South Dazkota, site of the l890 Pine Ride
Reservation massacre of more than 200 Sioux by federal troops. On
otherdays he could be found defacing Mount Rushmore, seizing the
Mayflower ll or suing the Cleveland Indians, leading a sit-in or stopping
a Columbus Day parade. He's been charged with murder (exonerated), been
married (4 times) and run for President. His resume lists stints as
assistant golf pro, ballroom dancing instructor, rodeo bullrider and
computer programmer. Hismovie credits include The Last of theMohicans,
Natural Born Killers, Wazgons East, Wind Runner and Pocahontas. And his
recent autobiography with co-writer Marvin J. Wolf, Where White Men Fear
to Tread: The Autobiography of Russell Means (St. Martin's Press, l995(),
fills in the rest.
Wideman: "I've heard of an Indian tradition that involves several names
for each pereson. Is it true you are given four names?
Means: I come from the Horse Clan, which gives you a name for eachstage
of human life: child, young adult, older adult, elder. You're supposed
to try tolive up to each name. I was given a name when I was born,
Wanbli Ohitika, which means Brave Eage. So, of course, I was always
running around taking dare, getting in lots of mischief. Being a pain
sometimes, I bet. My 2nd name was Cio (pronounced SHE-oh), aa bird from
the prairies, the plains, thaat does a beautiful dance during mating
season. The white man calls cio "prairie chicken". But we call it cio
and the word describes the dance and gives you a picture. Indigenous
languages always give you pictures. When I was a young man I wasgiven
the right to dance and became a champion fancy dancer at some of our
traditional Indian dances. I was given my 3rd name in l972 at a July 4
celebration at Porcupine, South Dakota, on the Pine Ride Reseervation 3
years after I joined AIM. Oyate Wacinyapi: Works for the People. You
receive your 4th name when you become an elder and hopefully I'll get
there. I alreadyknow the name. It's from my community, the name of a
respected wise and patient leader from the past. When I reach the time
when I'm considered an elder and worthy, the name will be conferredon me
and again I'll have to live up to it.
Wideman: Preparing for that can be a weight, but a good weight.l
Means: Yeah, it was one of the things that led me to seek treatment for
my anger. To becomepatient and wise you can't be an angryperson and was
quite an angry person. Mymarriage was falling apart, and I didn't want
to lose my wife or children.
Wideman: As a member of AIM, you've certainly eaarned your 3rd name,
Works for the People.
Means: AIM is an organization I'm very proud of. We were the vanguard of
the renaissance of Indian pride and self-dignity. The vanguard. Our
primary focus was to fight racism and also to fight for independence,
complete independence and freedom, from theU.S. of A., based upon treaty
law. One of our axioms was self-defense. If we were attacked, we would
no turn the other cheek, nor would we bend over to get the other two
kicked. We fought. Percentage-wise we suffered more assassinations,
governmental pressure, repression and suppression than any other militant
organization ofthat time. Yet of all those militant organizaations --
like the Black Pantheers, Weazthermen, Brown Berets, Young Lords -- we're
the onlyone that survived the 70s.
Wideman: How do you account for your sole survival?
Means: Number one, we've got a history. Number two, we have our
spirituality. Those two factors dictate that we approach our struggle on
the basis of family, and we still do.
Wideman: A family willing to fight and die for its beliefs?
Means: I'm a staunch believer in self-defense. But Indian people,
contraryto everything you've been taught about indigenous people -- and
there are only two cultures, one indigenous and one industrial -- are
the most peace-loving people on Earth. We are not warlike.
Wideman: Yet that's been the popular image of Indians in this country:
cold-blooded warriors.
Means: How could oursociety be warlike? That's impossible. I'm not
saying wedidn't have rambunctious young people who went out for
adventure. Where we lived was the Lakota. Then there was the Arapaho.
Then the Cheyenne. Those areas were inviolate. There was a buffer zone,
or everyman's land, that surrounded each of our lands, and was shared by
all. That was to avoid conflict. Understanding that the easiest thing
to do in life is kill, it was a dishonor to kill. So when we had
disagreements, or met one another in every man's land, the biggest
accomplishment was to touch the enemyandlive to tell about it -- not to
kill him. In fact, writer and professor Vine Deloria, Jr. wrote that our
warfare was no more dangerous than an NFL football game, probably less
so. I challenge anyarchaeologist to produce one weapon of war from an
indigenous people. We didn't go around torturing, maiming and killing
white people either -- unless we suffered such horrendous atrocities that
our rage knew no bounds. I just get sick and tried of hearing about the
"courageous people who survived the lurking dangers of the marauding
savages." Show me one me one human being -- one white man, one black
man, one Indian -- who would go someplace with his wife and kids where
there was great danger. Our societies are matriarchal -- ruled bymothers,
andmothers never want to kill babies or anything that's living. When you
understand matriarchal societies you can understand life itself because
women create. Women create and give birth. My God, they give birth.
Just think of that. It's awesome, mind-boggling. I can't conceive of
that, no male can. They're the only living beings on Earth purified
naturally by the universe, in exact time with the moon. How cazn God be
a male entity? I find that insulting. Look at these man-made religions,
man-made, man-tbought-up, man-created religious with a deity that's a
man. I don't care if you're a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Jew, Moslem or
Christian, every one of those religions justifies imperialism and male
supremacy in the name of its male gods. It's scary. This world won't
recognize women.
Wideman: How do Indian societies recognize women?
Means: Sun Dance.
Wideman: Theritual in which dancers have their flesh pierced?
Means: Yes. My grandfather once told me a story. He said: "A long time
ago the people were sitting around the fire. Pretty soon the men came to
watch the women grow with child and when they watched, they witnessed
the miracle of life, birth itself, live birth, the miracle of created
life. Then they looked at one another." That's how my grandfather's
story ended: "Then they looked at one another."
Well, after I joined AIM I remembered that story and began to think
about it. Then I began to find out about it. Indians, indigenous peoples
worldwide, recognize the female-male balance in all of life. We want to
get in balance with the female, so we create purification ceremonies for
boys and men to bring us to an understanding of what it's lie to give
birth. We dance the Su n Dance for four days, facing the
sun, following
the sun, all day, sunup to sundown. During those four days and mights we
do not eat or drink water so we can try to begin to understand the
suffering of pregnancy. You see, when you eat food it has to go to two
people. The body starts relying on itself, within.
Wideman: Eating itself.
Means. Yeah, exactly, for protein. It starts eating the muscles.
On the fourth day we pierce our chests, maybe even our backs, to
understand the pain and the giving of flesh and blood the woman goes through.
Wideman: I've never heard it explained that way.
Means: Probably never will again. Unfortunately, these days Indian people
are going through the Sun Dance. Indian young men and women, who think
it's a macho ceremony to show how tough you are, that you're a warrior.
That's not it at all. The ceremony's about coming into balance with the
female. The piercing is about trying to understand birth.
Wideman: So the ritual is as much about weakness as it is about strength.
Means: Taking responsibility. Exposing your vulnerability. I try to tell
our young people that if it wasn't for our women, we would not remain a
distinct people. I want the world to know, my children to know, what our
women have done. They're not squaws, man, they're heroes.
Wideman:How else do you teach young people about the role of women?
Means: We raise our children in the extended family. The children,
both girls and boys, are raised primarily by the females for the first
six years of their lives. We ground the male chcild in the female
world-view. They learn nurturing. They learn how to be in touch with
their feelings. Indigenous men are very sensitive men. They cry easily
and they're not ashamed of it, you know.
Wideman: Indian women had az lot to do with the AIM occupation of Wounded
Knee in l973 that challenged the federal government's breaking of treaties.
Means: They led it. They were among the first negotiators with the
federal government, but their role's been pushed aside. If it weren't
for AIM we might have completely, conveniently, disappeared as a people
from the U.S. But we're alive and well. The occupation of Wounded Knee
in l973 alerted the world that not only are we alive and existing but
we're also still resisting. Only one colonized opeople in the world
have resisted longer than the American Indian -- the Irish. Theyhave
resisted for more than 800 years. We have resisted formore than 500.
Wideman: African women also hve a long history of resisting European
imperialism. They refused to carry their goods to market, led strikes,
fought tax collectors, participated in armed struggles. But until
recently, their place in the forefront of liberationmovements was largely
There's more to this article, but I think I got the important points.
Ruby Rohrlich