Russell Means (left) and Dennis Banks, at Pine Ridge Reservation at Wounded Knee in 1973, instructing occupants how to hold their ground against the US government
Russell Means will not be counted among the great civil rights leaders of the 60s and 70s “New Left” movements, and I doubt that he would want to be. Means was at the forefront of a new generation of native rights advocates, and their struggle was largely isolated from popular progressive discourse. He is best known for the armed occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973, when the American Indian Movement (AIM) took up arms and reclaimed Wounded Knee, the historical battle site and small town, for the Lakota Nation.
Political strife had plagued local tribal politics for years, and Means was perceived as a firebrand by many established leaders, some seen as overly-cozy with the U.S. government. AIM was very much a youth movement in inception, and the desperation felt by many of its members was rooted in what they felt to be ineffectual or corrupt leadership. Demanding justice for police brutality, extreme poverty, broken treaties, and the destruction of native land, AIM took up arms after efforts to impeach the standing Oglala Lakota Tribal President had failed. Means and others had participated in occupations before (Alcatraz, the seizing of the Mayflower II replica, and Mount Rushmore, to name a few), but the “Incident at Wounded Knee” wasn’t just a protest, it was a battle.
With Means as spokesman, nearly 200 men and women held Wounded Knee for 71 days; there was regular gunfire between the activists and the 50 U.S. Marshals. The shootout that ended the standoff resulted in the deaths of a U.S. Marshal and two activists. What followed was was a scattering of AIM members, some who were later convicted and jailed despite questionable evidence (Leonard Peltier), others, like Anna Mae Aquash, were killed under mysterious circumstances. Means was among the lucky, and went on to continue his activism, become more involved in tribal politics, and eventually write his autobiography, Where White Men Fear to Tread.
In an 1980 interview with Mother Jones, Russel Means reasserted his commitment to the cause, saying,
“I work primarily with my own people, with my own community. Other people who hold non-European perspectives should do the same. I believe in the slogan, “Trust your brother’s vision,” although I’d like to add sisters into the bargain. I trust the community and the culturally based vision of all the races that naturally resist industrialization and human extinction.”
Russell Means was resisting the colonists, not trying to break bread with them. It’s nearly unfathomable to consider 200 people taking up arms against the US government, holding a town hostage to demand basic rights, but this is what makes the legacy of AIM and Means so much more powerful in a sea of peaceful sit-ins and impotent political theater. When the youth of the tribal nation felt ignored by their leaders, they turned to a man who literally pissed on Mount Rushmore. When “peace and love” was the dominant narrative of the left-leaning, Russell Means and the American Indian Movement were attempting armed revolution.