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Russell Means at peace

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Russell Means, 1997 Sun-Times photo by Jon Sall.


The American Indian sat at a long table in a North Side spiritual bookstore. His arms were crossed. He was not smiling.
The lines on his face ran as deep as the Missouri River, which roared through his native South Dakota when he was young.
His angry eyes were stoked by the embers of lost generations.
I will never forgot those eyes.

Russell Means died early Monday at his ranch in Porcupine, S.D. He was 72. He was finally free.....

........Means developed inoperable throat cancer in August, 2011 and shunned mainstream medical treatments in favor of traditonial American Indian remedies.

I sat down with Means in November, 1997 when he was still talking to journalists. In recent years he refused interviews and only spoke to his fans through YouTube and blog posts. (In January of this year he endorsed Ron Paul for President on a YouTube post.)

Means was best known for leading a 71-day takeover of Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1973 during a protest of the federal government's Indian policies. In 1970 the warrior punctuated a climb up Mt. Rushmore by urinating on George Washington's face, citing the president's resume as an Indian killer.

But in 1997 the Oglala-Lakota warrior was also the voice of Chief Powhatan in the animated Disney adventure ``Pocahontas'' and he toured Europe on behalf of Disney. Means also had roles in the films ``Natural Born Killers'' and ``The Last of the Mohicans.''

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If someone had told Means in 1973 that he would be working in a Disney animated film, what would he have said?
"I'd say they were insane," Means answered during our conversation at Transitions Bookplace on the upscale side of Chicago. "But I'm an artist now. I never knew I was an artist until I did `Last of the Mohicans.' Now, I sculpt, I paint, I write books, screenplays, I act."

Means was in Chicago to promote his autobiography, "Where White Men Fear to Tread" (St. Martin's Press, $26.95), and to speak at a dinner to raise money for T.R.E.A.T.Y. (True Revolution for the Elders, Ancestors, Treaties and Youth), as well as other American Indian organizations.

Means always refused to use the term "Native American," describing it as a "generic term fostered by the U.S. government to describe its prisoners."

Means and activist Dennis Banks founded the American Indian Movement in the early 1970s to address 20th century issues confronting Indians. AIM was allegedly involved in the 1975 slaying of Annie Mae Aquash. Authorities believed three AIM members shot and killed Aquash on the Pine Ridge reservation on the orders of an AIM leader because it was suspected she was an FBI informant. Two activists--Arlo Looking Cloud and John Graham--were eventually convicted of murder. The third has never been charged.

In 1997 AIM had 45 local chapters in the United States and Canada, including Chicago.
"People in Chicago have been more responsive than anywhere in the world, except for Germany," Means said. He cited the support of Chicago entertainment promoter Dennis Mascari and then-WLUP radio personality Kevin Matthews, who befriended Means earlier in 1997.

A Libertarian, in 1984 Means swung to the right and hooked up with the Larry Flynt ticket during the Hustler magazine publisher's bid for the Republican nomination for president. Means supported Ralph Nader in the 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns.

Means also sang and played what he called Rapajo music (a mixture of rhythm and blues, doo-wop and country.) He released two CDs, "Electric Warrior" and "The Radical."

One of the most eloquent chapters of "Where White Men Fear to Tread" is where Means reflects on his 1991 decision to enter Cottonwood de Tucson, a noted residential anger treatment center near his home in Chinle, Ariz.
"Cottonwood saved my life," he told me.

Means went through a 30-day spin cycle of intense spiritual confrontation, a 12-step process that continued through our interview. As the autobiography was being written, Means was on step eight, recognizing the people he's hurt in his life.
Means wrote, "At Cottonwood, I came to understand that life is not about race or culture or pigmentation or bone structure - it's about feelings. That's what makes us human beings. We all feel joy and happiness and laughter. We all feel sadness and ugliness and shame and hurt.
"I had often wondered how to best decolonize my people. . . . It must be done one human being at a time. Without that kind of help, Western society does not allow people to come to terms with their feelings. With honesty and therapy, my people can be made whole again.
"

Means took stock of his fellow Cottonwood patients. They were executives from major corporations, wealthy people, even a lawyer who owned a mental health hospital. He wrote, "I was pissed off because, except for two Chicanos and a Navajo woman, I had seen only white people."

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Yet Means learned to feel sympathy for the white community, a culture he says suffers from a deep spiritual void.
"Why?" Means asked when probed. He shrugged his shoulders and laughed.

Then he answered, "Because of pure empowerment. The worst thing that ever happened to Indians was when they got educated. They got their Indianness educated right out of them. They became facsimile white people, lost, caring only for the moment.
"And the idiocy of (Christian) redemption. It's the only discipline I know of in the world that allows you to sin six days during the week and get redemption on Sunday. The void is that you don't really have a personal connection. Once you obtain personal connection, you respect your elders."

The firmly rooted autobiography was born in 1993 when writer Murray Fisher visited Means on the Navajo reservation in Chinle to interview him for a Playboy magazine article. Fisher had edited "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" and "Roots" by Alex Haley. Fisher told Means that he should write a book. Los Angeles writer Marvin J. Wolf was brought on as co-author. Fisher edited the early drafts of Where White Men Fear to Tread." The book weighs in at 573 pages. Means said 300 pages were edited out.

"There's no history of my people in the 20th century," he said. "We don't exist. So I decided through my family to give an overview that hopefully would inspire Indian scholars somewhere soon to start doing a definitive history about our existence in the 20th century."
Means wasn't enamored with the publishing industry, although he credited St. Martin's for sending him on book tours, first when the hardcover version was released in January, 1996. He was impressed by the cross-cultural turnouts at bookstores.

"In Cleveland, a black lady owned a bookstore and asked me to come to East Cleveland, the black side of town," Means said. "We sold out of 200 books. I'm well known in Cleveland (Means started AIM in Cleveland). Plus, I put a curse on the Cleveland Indians. I refuse to lift it as long as they have Chief Wahoo and the Indians name. Some years I'll snuff it right out like I did last year. This year, I drew it out to the end. Torture, torture. Then I crushed them!"

At this point, people who were listening to our conversation quietly backed away from the table.

Means had no problem navigating his way through the predominantly white entertainment and publishing industry.
"White people in this country gotta understand something," Means said as he leaned foreward and looked me in the eye. "We grew up with you. We know all about your history, your language. We've learned about your desires and your evil. It's impossible for any person of a darker color to discriminate against a white man. We know you.
"You don't know us."

In 2004 Means crossed over from film and books to guest on the HBO show "Curb Your Enthusiasm." He played Wandering Bear, an American Indian who worked in landscaping and herbal medicine.

Tim Giago was publisher of Indian Country Today, the largest American Indian newspaper in the nation, based in Rapid City, S.D., Giago's late father-in-law, Dave Brewer, played with Means' father, Hank, on the same Pine Ridge (Reservation) High School basketball team that in 1936 won South Dakota's first state Class B tournament.

In a 1997 phone interview, Giago said, "I know many American Indians who took exception to the use of Russell's voice in ` Pocahontas.' Russell's been quoted that it is the greatest movie ever done on American Indians. He's used his notoriety to benefit himself on more than one occasion."

Means responded, "I don't respond to that. I learned in the struggle to never make war on your own people. If they want to make war on me, fine. I don't have time for it."

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1 Comment

I was so excited to see the formation of AIM. Russell and his people worked so hard to free the Spirits of the People. Will we ever have another Spirit like his? I grew up hating the government control of us, on & off the Reservations, the way we were treated, the things we were called! From childhood, the humiliations cast upon us were very hard to live with. But our elders kept us strong. There was nothing the Government did not corrupt & try to diminish in us but they will never know what is buried deep in our hearts, the longing to be free & the greatness of our pride & love that they will never be able to destroy! Our children must have their rights to be recognized with the freedom to be what we are! The fight will not be over until our Spirits are free of the demoralizing dominations cast upon us! Russell Means & all his Warriors will live forever in our hearts. I wish I could be there with you to join
you all in the celebration of his life & AIM! Know we are with you in Spirit to do honor to him & to AIM & to us all. Drooping Feather

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Dave Hoekstra

Dave Hoekstra has been a Chicago Sun-Times staff writer since 1985. His collection of Sun-Times travel columns, "Ticket To Everywhere," was published in 2000 by Lake Claremont Press. He was lead writer for "Farm Aid: Song for America" (Rodale Press, 2005) which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Willie Nelson inspired effort.
He won a 1987 Chicago Newspaper Guild Stick O-Type Award for Column Writing. Hoekstra wrote and co-proudced the WTTW-Channel 11 PBS special: "The Staple Singers and the Civil Rights Movement," nominated for a 2001-02 Chicago Emmy for a documentary program/cultural significance.
He lives in Chicago.

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