“I hope to be remembered as a fighter and as a patriot who never feared controversy—and not just for Indians. When I fight for my people’s rights, when I stand up for our treaties, when I protest government lies and illegal seizures and unlawful acts, I defend all Americans, even the bigoted and misguided,” wrote Russell Means, in Where White Men Fear to Tread.
Russell Means, or Oyate Waciyanpi, the People Rely on Him, Oglala Lakota, was a person of contradictions—a man who praised matriarchy, a scholar who was stabbed and shot on the activist path, a leader who took on mundane tasks, and an actor whose preoccupation was not only film, but a nearly 150-year-old treaty.
Memories were recalled in “Mitakuye Oyasin—We Are All Related: Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Russell Means,” a tribute to the activist and leader who was proud of his people and his heritage. He walked on October 22, 2012 at his home in Porcupine, South Dakota.
Means was honored November 7 to November 10—his birthday—in Denver, where he had maintained an ongoing involvement with the American Indian Movement (AIM) of Colorado and became the scourge of the Columbus Day parade, which his presence halted one year. The event has never fully recovered.
There were some tears, but the ceremony was by no means all solemnity. His wife, Pearl Daniel-Means, talked to his friends, allies and supporters about the special requirements of being his wife.
In that role one had to be sure to have $500 in cash on hand in case bail money was needed, and a valid state driver’s license if law enforcement refused to honor the license he created for himself that, according to treaty, also granted him the right to hunt and fish.
Under the terms of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, Means claimed the lands and natural resources in parts of present-day North and South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska for the Republic of Lakotah he created.
The final day of the ceremonies was a public honoring at Lincoln High School, which prompted speakers to note that, although then-President Abraham Lincoln pardoned 300 Dakota men after an uprising, he had 38 others hanged, an event commemorated annually.
The fourth-day opened with Black Horse Drum singing the AIM song, given to the organization in 1972 in Gordon, Nebraska after the murder of Raymond Yellow Thunder, explained Glenn Morris, Colorado AIM leader.
The oft-repeated theme at the last event was Indian pride, a concept with deep significance for Means, who in a film clip shown during the honoring, cries openly as a grandmother and her grandchild sift through trash for food or other things—he remembered how the Lakota were once a proud and prosperous people.
Frank LaMere, Winnebago, recalled the times he and Means stood up to law enforcement in Whiteclay, Nebraska to call attention to beer sales in Whiteclay taverns to people walking there from the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation. With a shake of his head, LaMere said: "Every time I was with Russell, I got arrested."
The commemoration included panels, films, a gala to raise funds for a Russell Means Library on Pine Ridge, and a short film about his life that is in progress. Pearl also signed and displayed his last book, If You’ve Forgotten the Names of the Clouds, You’ve Lost Your Way.
Means was a “true believer in the spiritual realm,” his son Scott said at the honoring’s conclusion. Russell Means was a Sun Dance chief who followed the traditional ways of his people in his life and in his last illness.
The tribute in Denver was the fourth and final family ceremony honoring Means.