I was a reporter with an NBC news station in New Mexico in the winter of 2003. The morning newspaper I was reading reported that Russell Means was going to speak to students at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado that afternoon in a presentation. The college was 70 miles away, north of Farmington, New Mexico. I had just enough time to drive there, get a quick interview and race back to the station for our evening newscast. Being that Fort Lewis College has a large number of Native American students from around the country, I knew it would be an interesting story to cover.
The plan was to attend the speech, get some feedback from the audience and get a quick interview with Means. Simple enough, right? Well, weather in Colorado that day was not in my favor. After driving on slick, icy roads, and following backed up traffic from a trailer tractor driving slow, I had missed Means’s speech.
However, I found some people in the still-packed auditorium who said he had “just left the building.” They were beyond star-struck with meeting him and talking to him. I ran through the building and despite slush and ice on the sidewalk, I spotted Means walking—alone—across the campus toward the parking lot under a Colorado gray sky. It was cold and I was out of breath as I caught up to him.
“Mr. Means, Mr. Means! Hi, wait, please hold on, just a moment of your time. Please. May I interview you real quick? I’d like to share with our viewers what you said today to these college students and what you enjoy most about speaking with students in college.”
I was carrying about 40 pounds of video equipment, a tripod and microphone. It was so cold, my breath was making clouds.
Means kept walking and despite my catching up with him, he still kept his pace. He slightly glanced briefly to look at the equipment and finally stopped.
To be able to interview Means was something I wanted to do for many reasons.
I read his book Where White Men Fear to Tread and admired him for his courage and intelligence concerning Native American issues. Additionally, I admired his leadership, admission of falling short on personal and private events, historical insight and his well-researched opinions regarding Native American responsibilities to self-reliance and justice.
Despite Means being a highly controversial public figure and sometimes militant in his actions, he was a person I had always wanted to interview. Every reporter has a list of the top 20 people they’d like to interview, and for me, Means was one of those.
Yet, that day, I had mistakenly believed he would agree to an interview and was promptly, abruptly rebuffed and it was done so with succinct precision. For this is exactly what he said:
“Anything I wanted to say, needed to say or had to say,” he said, gesturing toward the auditorium in which he’d just spoken, “I said the them (the students). Now go away…don’t bother me.”
Means quickly walked off and I can see him now as he made his way across the campus, down the hill toward the park lot and—I kid you not—it started sleeting.
I stood there watching him. And I was smiling very wide. I was just told off by Russell Means. I was told to get lost and saw firsthand how serious Means could be.
When I told my news director what happened later that day, he scoffed at the rudeness of it all, and I explained it was not rude at all. If one does not want to be interviewed, one can say so. Yes, I was defending Means’s right to not bend to media coverage of what he shared with college students, but it was more than that.
I saw the intense, piercing dark eyes get very serious about the media infringing on his right to not be bothered.
A couple of years later, I covered another news story on a film called Black Cloud, which featured Means. The premiere was held in Scottsdale and dozens of media outlets from TV, newspaper, radio, and Internet were all out in full force to cover the event.
Many Hollywood celebrities were there and Means came down the red carpet with his beautiful wife, Pearl, speaking to the media and was charming and happy. Later that night, after the film premiered, some of the media were invited to the private party in a fancy Scottsdale nightclub. I remember it was understood that we were not to bother the “stars.”
I went for a little while to observe. What I remembered most was how everyone was so elated and really enjoyed themselves. A moment came during the party where the DJ put on the theme song from the film by singer Pat Green titled Wave on Wave. I watched as Means carefully took his wife to the dance floor and they danced alone on the dance floor for a while to this song—smiling only to each other. Others joined them after a few minutes of being alone on the dance floor where they looked so happy.
It was very touching and insightful because—once again—one saw another facet of an incredible complex, humble, passionate, intriguing and romantic Oglala Sioux man.
And while I never got to interview him, I did get to briefly—sort of—meet him and observe some special moments in his long and prosperous life. Today, I join Native America and others around the globe—with whom we share Mother Earth—as we say our final goodbye and keep the family, friends and Oglala Sioux Nation in our thoughts and prayers. Yes, mitaku oyasin. (We are all related).
Valarie Tom is a member of the White Mountain Apache Tribe and is an awarding-winning journalist for her work in magazine, print and television. Tom has taught in college and currently teaches mass communications in high school in Phoenix, where she resides.