History is often made by accident, so we should not read too much into the almost simultaneous deaths last week of South Dakotans Russell Means and George McGovern. Nevertheless, their common passing should remind us of the intersecting paths they traveled in life and the common goals they served. The obituaries say otherwise. Means, posing defiantly for cameras wearing his ribbon shirt and braids, represented the modern Indian warrior, while McGovern, in his seventies suits and wide ties, typified the Democratic Party stalwart. The contrast between them can be underscored by recalling that forty years ago next week Means became an international media star when, on the eve of the 1972 Presidential election, he led an occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C. As Senator McGovern campaigned desperately to stop a Nixon landslide, Means and his allies were erecting signs renaming their prize the Native American “embassy” and daring the White House to evict them.
The juxtaposition of the Native outsider and the mainstream politician is appealing to commentators. Denied citizenship for most of U.S. history and routinely ignored by arrogant policymakers, activists like Means often had little choice but to resist. But Means’s career often crossed paths with politicians like McGovern and few outsiders understand that Indian activists have often entered—and altered—the mainstream of American politics. By separating these two men in our memory we risk forgetting that the contemporary vibrancy of Native American communities owes as much to Indian lobbyists, lawyers and lecturers as it does to those who chose violence and confrontation. Those activists worked to make a place for Native people within the borders of the United States. Unfortunately, their efforts are frequently dismissed.
In the 1960s both McGovern and Means were eager soldiers in the war on poverty. As a congressman, McGovern was an early supporter of a proposal to rebuild Indian reservations with the same techniques the United States used in its overseas foreign aid. That idea originated in the 1940s with D’Arcy McNickle, a member of Montana’s Salish-Kootenai tribe who had worked in the Bureau of Indian Affairs and helped found the National Congress of American Indians. When—with McGovern’s active support—McNickle’s proposal was incorporated into the legislation creating the Office of Economic Opportunity, Indian community organizations were suddenly permitted to design their own development programs and apply directly for federal support, thereby avoiding the stifling hand of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. One of the first successful applicants was the Cleveland American Indian Center, soon headed by 27-year-old Russell Means.
McGovern and Means were brought together again in 1973 on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, when the activist, now a prominent member of the American Indian Movement, led a group of tribal elders and young supporters into the village of Wounded Knee and declared themselves the “Independent Oglala Nation.” Senator McGovern visited the site and attempted to negotiate a quick solution, but the occupation dragged on for another two months. The two men sat on opposite sides of those negotiations, but once again, they shared a deeper connection to a major trend in Indian affairs that had been initiated by others: the serious review of federal promises to Native communities. One hundred fifty years earlier in the midst of the controversy over Indian removal in the Southeast, Choctaw attorney James McDonald had published an appeal to Congress which declared that the American government’s commitment to “liberty and equality” was the Indians’ best guarantee of fair dealing. “You will not submit to injury from one party because it is powerful,” he wrote, “nor will you oppress another because it is weak.” With that principle in mind, “we are confident that our rights will be preserved.” Indian politicians had frequently repeated McDonald’s injunction, but it was not until well into the twentieth century, when a rising generation of insistent leaders pressed for action, that compassionate politicians like McGovern began to listen. Congress and the courts began to recognize and enforce the promises made decades earlier in treaties and other federal commitments.
McGovern and Means approached life differently, but they participated together in a legacy of Indian activism as old as the American nation. Thanks to the efforts of D’Arcy McNickle, James McDonald and countless others, they could envision an American future where the promise of “liberty and equality” could be fulfilled for both Native and non-native citizens. It should not surprise us that they are linked in this way, just as it should not surprise us that the National Congress of American Indians—now the nation’s largest and oldest Native civil rights organization—recently decided to use the language of Means’s 1972 poster when it opened an “Embassy of Tribal Nations” in Washington, D.C.
Frederick Hoxie is Swanlund Professor of History, Law and American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana/Champaign and author of This Indian Country: American Indian Activists and the Place They Made (Penguin USA, 2012)