It would be a shame for Russell Means (1939-2012) to be remembered only as a maker of trouble, an unreasonable negotiator, and someone who pushed the limits of human behavior to the breaking point. I met him when I was an American Indian press reporter in Washington, D.C. back in the early 1970s. He was a board member of the news service, the American Indian Press Association. I was the editor of the Legislative Review, a monthly magazine reporting on national legislation and the federal courts.
Means moved from San Francisco to Cleveland, Ohio in 1970, where an American Indian Movement (AIM) office had been established and came to the nation’s capital in 1971 to demand action from the government. While there, he studied the organizational chart of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and identified John Old Crow, its Deputy Commissioner as the most incompetent apple on the administrative tree. He then called for a strategy session, which he asked that Richard La Course, news director in the Press Association and I cover. We learned AIM’s strategy was to perform a citizen’s arrest of John Old Crow to bring attention to the need to reform the BIA. AIM leaders planned to simply walk into the BIA building and perform the arrest on behalf of all American Indian people.
Police were called, doors were locked and in the melee that followed, Russell Means was pulled feet first down the marble steps of the building from the second to the first floor. His head hit the steps several times, so when he reached the first floor and was cuffed, blood was streaming down his face. About two dozen AIM members were arrested but when the “trespass” charges were dropped by BIA Commissioner Louis R. Bruce, also an Indian (Sioux and Mohawk), the brief appearance in court by those charged was only a formality. Means and all of the AIM members were invited back to the BIA for refreshments in the Commissioner’s conference room, where he went from table to table, asking for a list of grievances. He then held up his red AIM card, demonstrating that he, too, was a member of the rapidly growing movement. Throughout, Means smiled and took teasing about bouncing down the steps with good humor, even though he must have had injuries that were never seen by doctors.
AIM struggled to organize itself and it soon developed a hierarchy that placed Means at or near the top. He became the national director, and in that position, could scythe a world that had become accustomed to the misuse of Indian identity.
One accomplishment stands out from all the rest and it should be included in the legacy of a man who was hard to understand and who in his own memoir related that he needed the help of counseling to overcome his propensity for angry outbursts.
At a little known point on the map called Wakpala, AIM came together to form the International Indian Treaty Council in 1974. It would address the most revered part of all Indian existence: the treaties that contained the word of the U.S. government in nation-to-nation agreements with tribes and nations of the land. The 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty was of particular import and the elders, the old Chiefs, put their trust in AIM to find a way to assure that what was left of Lakota territory would be vouchsafed. Where else might that happen than the United Nations? The challenge was, how to get there.
Means and attorneys who specialized in international affairs and the workings of the United Nations went to work. The unassuming but brilliant Cherokee Jimmie Durham became the first director of the International Indian Treaty Office, housed in a tiny office in New York City. Durham started the work toward what would be the first Geneva, Switzerland conference. There, coming together peoples from the entire Western Hemisphere, shouldered the task of finding a way to maintain their identities and sovereignty in perpetuity. Russell Means moved confidently among the conference members, urging through the task at hand: a declaration to be adopted by the United Nations.
Fifty-four years earlier, a Cayuga named Deskaheh had gone to Geneva to address the League of Nations to safeguard his homelands in New York State. He came back empty-handed.
The Declaration forged in that meeting in 1977, with changes through the years, became the U.N. 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, 33 years later. At the Geneva conference Means said,” Someone once said you can tell the power of a country by the oppression its people will tolerate. No longer are we going to tolerate the monster.”
Many remember Russell Means for Wounded Knee in 1973, or various demonstrations and takeovers. Few know that his greatest accomplishment was one of his most quiet.
Laura Waterman Wittstock, Seneca Nation, is a retired nonprofit executive and journalist. She currently hosts the live weekly radio interview program, First Person Radio, on KFAI-FM in Minneapolis.