Russell Means, the Ogalala Sioux who portrayed Chingachicook in Last of the Mohicans died yesterday at the age of 72 of inoperable Throat Cancer. He chose not to try the modern medical routes of Chemotherapy and Radiotherapy but rather try Holistic Remedies, which in the end did not work.
Although he is probably best known and remembered by most people for his role in Last of the Mohicans, Russell really became Famous for his IRL role as a leader of the American Indian Movement, AIM. In particular, his greatest notoriety came in the standoff at Wounded Knee in 1973 with the FBI, which lasted around 70 days as I recall. There were several Gun Battles in this confrontation, and in later years Russell was tried and acquitted in the murder of another Native American Annie May Aquash, who AIM leaders had pegged as an FBI Informant. His activism in fighting for Native American Rights and Justice is the stuff of Legend:
AIM was founded in the late 1960s to protest the U.S. government’s treatment of Native Americans and demand that the government honor its treaties with Indian tribes. Means first gained national attention when he led a group of Indian protesters in seizing the Mayflower II ship replica in Plymouth, Mass., on Thanksgiving Day 1970.
Other protests included a prayer vigil atop Mount Rushmore to focus attention on Lakota claims to the Black Hills and an occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., to highlight broken treaties.
His leadership of the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee, S.D., cemented his place in the national spotlight. The protesters demanded strict federal adherence to old Indian treaties and an end to what they called corrupt tribal governments.
He found himself dogged for decades by questions about the group’s alleged involvement in the slaying of a tribe member, Annie Mae Aquash, and the several gunbattles with federal officers during the 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee, but he denied that the group ever promoted violence.
Wounded Knee where Russell and AIM made their Last Stand against the FBI was also the site of another battle, the last one fought in the Indian Wars in 1890.
On the morning of December 29, the troops went into the camp to disarm the Lakota. One version of events claims that during the process of disarming the Lakota, a deaf tribesman named Black Coyote was reluctant to give up his rifle, claiming he had paid a lot for it. A scuffle over Black Coyote’s rifle escalated and a shot was fired which resulted in the 7th Cavalry’s opening fire indiscriminately from all sides, killing men, women, and children, as well as some of their own fellow troopers. Those few Lakota warriors who still had weapons began shooting back at the attacking troopers, who quickly suppressed the Lakota fire. The surviving Lakota fled, but U.S. cavalrymen pursued and killed many who were unarmed.
By the time it was over, at least 150 men, women, and children of the Lakota Sioux had been killed and 51 wounded (4 men, 47 women and children, some of whom died later); some estimates placed the number of dead at 300. Twenty-five troopers also died, and 39 were wounded (6 of the wounded would later die). It is believed that many were the victims of friendly fire, as the shooting took place at close range in chaotic conditions. At least twenty troopers were awarded the coveted Medal of Honor
I was a Junior in HS in 1973, and a Pirate Radio Talk Showhost and DJ on the WQLB Pirate Radio station my friend Randi ran out of his basement in Flushing, NY. The standoff at Wounded Knee between AIM and the FBI was a regular subject of discussion on my Weekly Talk Show in the wee hours of Saturday Night-Sunday Morning for weeks. That confrontation was my first awakening to the Native American genocide undertaken to capture the Americas for the Europeans in how it was REALLY done, as opposed to the way it had been portrayed in Hollywood films and on TV in my youth.
When in 1992 Russell appeared in the credits as the actor who played Chingachicook, I did a double take. Was this the SAME Russell Means that ran the Last Stand at Wounded Knee? How many Native Americans are named Russell Means? Of course it WAS the same guy, and really no better Casting has ever been done for any Hollywood film EVER. Russell played that part so well because really Russell WAS Chingachicook, at least in his Spirit.
The Film remains perhaps my all time favorite of all films, which is pretty tough to call with many very good ones up there, but it is so emotionally wrenching and powerful in its themes that no matter how many times I watch it, I always tear up and mourn for what was lost here.
So now, in the words written by James Fenimore Cooper which Russell Means spoke so eloquently in that film, he finally does go to join the rest of his Tribe at the Great Council Fire of his People. He will find Peace there, and he will be Honored for all Eternity.
Great Spirit, Maker of All Life. A warrior goes to you swift and straight as an arrow shot into the sun. Welcome him and let him take his place at the council fire of my people. He is Uncas, my son. Tell them to be patient and ask death for speed; for they are all there but one – I, Chingachgook – Last of the Mohicans.
I will end this post with the penultimate 9 minute sequence at the end of Last of the Mohicans, the most emotionally wrenching 9 miutes ever filmed, IMHO. Self-Sacrifice, Good vs. Evil, Vengeance and Retribution, it’s all in there in 9 miutes of powerful filmaking backed by an equally powerful soundtrack. A fitting homage to Russell Means, the LAST OF THE MOHICANS.
Over a year ago, he knew he had inoperable esophageal cancer. It spread to his tongue, lymph nodes and lungs. It was just a matter of time. On October 22, it took him. His journey to the spirit world began.
In August 2011, he said:
“I’m not going to argue with the Great Mystery. Lakota belief is that death is a change of worlds. And I believe like my dad believed.”
“When it’s my time to go, it’s my time to go. I’ve told people after I die, I’m coming back as lightning. When it zaps the White House, they’ll know it’s me.”
Earlier he said:
“The Universe which controls all life, has a female and male balance that is prevalent throughout our Sacred Grandmother, the Earth.”
“This balance has to be acknowledged and become the determining factor in all of one’s decisions, be they spiritual, social, healthful, educational or economical.”
On October 24, he’ll be honored in Pine Ridge, SD, the Republic of Lakota. Other gatherings will also celebrate his life and work.
Speaking for herself and children, Means’ wife, Pearl Daniel Means, said the following:
“Hello our relatives. Our dad and husband, now walks among our ancestors. He began his journey to the spirit world at 4:44 am, with the Morning Star, at his home and ranch in Porcupine.”
“There will be four opportunities for the people to honor his life, to be announced at a later date. Thank you for your prayers and continued support. We love you. As our dad and husband would always say, ‘May the Great Mystery continue to guide and protect the paths of you and your loved ones.’ “
World headlines spread the news. The New York Times said “Russell Means, Who Clashed With Law as He Fought for Indians, Is Dead at 72.” He was America’s “best known Indian since Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.”
In 1968, he joined the American Indian Movement (AIM). In 1970, he became its national director. In 1995, he published his autobiography titled, “Where White Men Fear to Tread.”
“Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” author Dee Brown said “reading Means’ story is essential for any clear understanding of American Indians during the last half of the twentieth century.”
New York Times writer Robert McFadden said:
Shortly before being diagnosed with inoperable throat cancer, he “cut off his braids. (It was) a gesture of mourning for his people. In Lakota lore, he explained, the hair holds memories, and mourners often cut it to release those memories, and the people in them, to the spirit world.”
The Washington Post headlined “Russell Means dies at 72; American Indian activist helped lead uprising at Wounded Knee,” saying:
“(S)elf-styled modern Indian warrior….forced international attention on the plight of Native Americans for more than four decades.”
Reuters headlined “American Indian activist Russell Means dead at 72,” saying:
He waged a “lifelong campaign (struggling for) the rights and dignity of his people….”
AP called him “a modern Indian warrior. He railed against broken treaties, fought for the return of stolen land, and even took up arms against the federal government.”
The Los Angeles Times said “he helped thrust the plight of Native Americans into the national spotlight.”
Press TV called him “an outspoken champion of American Indian rights.”
Means once said, “Every policy now the Palestinians are enduring was practiced on the American Indians.”
“What the American Indian Movement says is that the American Indians are the Palestinians of the United States, and the Palestinians are the American Indians of Europe.”
He called Indian lands open air concentration camps, saying:
“If you chose to stay on the reservation, you are guaranteed to be poor, unless you are part of the colonial apparatus set up by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, set up the United States.”
“I wish I was there to talk with you in person and share with you the sorrow that I feel with the passing of Russell Means, my brother, my friend, and inspiration on many levels.”
“Russell Means will always be an icon whenever the American Indian Movement is spoken of and whenever people talk about the changes that took place, the changes that are taking place now for Indian people.”
“We’ll see you again my brother Russell, in some other time and in some other place, we will always be your friend, and we will always look forward to seeing your face. Mitakuye Oyasin (All Are Related from a traditional Lakota Sioux prayer).”
Russell Means.com said he “lived a life like few others in this century…” He disliked being called a Native American. “The one thing I’ve always maintained is that I’m an American Indian.”
“Everyone who’s born in the Western Hemisphere is a Native American. We are all Native Americans.”
He also said he put “American” before ethnicity. “I’m not a hyphenated African-American or Irish-American or Jewish-American or Mexican-American.”
Means was born on November 10, 1939 in Wanblee, SD, on the Pine Ridge Oglala Lakota Sioux Indian Reservation. With Dennis Banks and Leonard Peltier, he participated in the 1973 Wounded Knee siege and tragedy.
For 71 days, they and other AIM activists held off hundreds off FBI thugs, federal marshals, National Guard troops, and complicit Indian vigilantes. They were called “GOONS (Guardians of Our Oglala Nation).” They sold out for whatever benefits they got in return.
On February 27, Oglala Sioux activists reclaimed Wounded Knee. They wanted their 1868 treaty rights honored.
It stated that “(t)he government of the United States desires peace, and its honor is hereby pledged to keep it.” It also reaffirmed all Indian rights granted under the 1851 Treaty.
From 1778 – 1871, Washington negotiated 372 treaties. All were systematically spurned.
At Wounded Knee, AIM represented over 75 Indian Nations. For nearly two and a half months, they held on. They were free. It wasn’t easy. Washington cut off electricity. Food and other essential deliveries were blocked.
Activists were shot and killed. When it ended, hundreds of arrests followed. An FBI/Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) reign of terror began. It lasted three years.
Roving death squads murdered at least 342 AIM members and supporters. Hundreds more were harassed and beaten. Many more were arrested. Their crime was wanting to live free on their own land.
Leonard Peltier was victimized. He was wrongfully convicted on two first-degree murder counts. On June 1, 1977, he got two consecutive life sentences.
Despite bogus charges and prosecutorial injustice, he’s been denied parole, retrial, clemency, or a pardon. Other nations, past and present congressional members, and hundreds of world dignitaries say he should be unconditionally released.
Means was more fortunate. He stayed free to remain active. In 1978, he joined The Longest Walk. Participants protested racist anti-Indian legislation at that time. It included forced sterilization of Indian women.
Earlier in 1964, Means, his father, and others occupied Alcatraz. They did so peacefully in accordance with their rights. According to broken treaty obligations, abandoned prison property belongs to Indian tribes.
On December 17, 2007, Means and other Lakota people went to Washington. They declared independence. They called it “the latest step in the longest running legal battle” in history.
It’s not a cessation, they said. It’s a lawful “unilateral withdrawal” from treaty obligations permitted under the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.
“We are no longer citizens of the United States of America and all those who live in the five-state area that encompasses our country are free to join us.”
“We offer citizenship to anyone provided they renounce their US citizenship.”
“United States colonial rule is at an end.”
Signed documents were delivered to the State Department. Sovereignty was declared. The Republic of Lakota was established. It’s based on the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie. It created the Great Lakota (Sioux) Nation. It states in part:
“The territory of the Sioux or Dahcotah Nation, commencing the mouth of the White Earth River, on the Missouri River; thence in a southwesterly direction to the forks of the Platte River; thence up the north fork of the Platte River to a point known as the Red Buts, or where the road leaves the river; thence along the range of mountains known as the Black Hills, to the head-waters of Heart River; thence down Heart River to its mouth; and thence down the Missouri River to the place of beginning.”
It gave Lakota people portions of northern Nebraska, half of South Dakota, one-fourth of North Dakota, one-fifth of Montana, and 20% of Wyoming.
It didn’t matter. Unilateral withdrawal from all treaties and agreements became policy. America never honored its own.
On September 29, 2012 Means reiterated what he and others declared in December 2007, saying:
“We are no longer citizens of the United States of America and all those who live in the five state area that encompasses our country are free to join us.”
He cited longstanding problems and grievances. They include land theft, resource plunder, poverty, unemployment, repression, and overall human deprivation. All of it remains out of sight and mind.
Means had three weeks to live. Lakota spokesman Salomon called his death a “great loss.” It came a day after former Senator George McGovern died. He and former Senator James Abourezk tried to negotiate an equitable Wounded Knee settlement.
Commenting on Means and McGovern, Abourezk said he “lost two good friends in a matter of two to three days. I don’t pretend to understand it.”
Death, of course, has final say. What matters most is showing up every day and working for right over wrong. Means said he wants to be remembered as an American Indian patriot. He spent most of his adult life proving it.