A portrait of Russell Means done by Andy Warhol for his American Indians series in 1976. (Image source: it.phaidon.com)

A portrait of Russell Means done by Andy Warhol for his American Indians series in 1976. (Image source: it.phaidon.com)

The Russell Means I Knew

Russell Means was not only a visionary, he was also keeper of memories. Russell was both an orator and a man of action. Inspired by a legacy of strength, Russell was one who walked his talk and inspired others to follow his example.

Many words have been written and spoken about his highly publicized leadership roles during the Red Power era. This is important but just as significant were the little- known or unheralded actions Russell did to support Indigenous Peoples.

Russell was one of a very small group of leaders who responded to many calls from Indigenous Peoples and arrived to help out in whichever way he could. From personal experience, I’ve witnessed Russell travel at his own expense to support a cause even when it was not something that he had a personal stake in. The compelling reason was often that a small group of Natives were attempting to stand up to some injustice and decided to reach out to Russell.

Russell was often described as figure of publicity but I’ve seen him avoid the spotlight in many public gatherings and rallies. At other times, organizers would have to encourage him to take a turn on the microphone or suggest that he share words of inspiration with those on hand. When news cameras were on hand, Russell wouldn’t hesitate to do an interview and call out the local media if they had an anti-NDN bias in their reporting. His concern was not with being a media NDN darling but giving NDNs a voice in the media.

Another trait of Russell’s that I witnessed was that he led from the front and took the same risks as anyone else. Whether that meant going to jail, standing vigil in uncomfortable weather or carrying out tasks while exhausted, Russell Means wasn’t one to skip out on us. Many times we’d complete a rally and Russell would jump in his van to travel to a different state so he could fulfill another request for his support. A friend and I had discussion about this and we agreed that Russell was someone we could depend on while many young NDN men we knew who spoke loudly about supporting Native Peoples always seemed to have good excuses for never showing up for anything.

Russell was also someone who was willing to share a needed perspective for young people. He often spoke to small groups of Native youth about what motivated and inspired him. I’ve listened to Russell share lesson’s from his personal history about the early AIM days up to the present and what he’s learned from that. Often those lessons had to do with perseverance, sacrifice and compassion.

Several years ago I was struggling with how one overcomes anger and hatred when violence is inflicted on them for seeking justice for Indigenous Peoples. It was a period when many Native friends were the victims of police brutality and they were wondering if the pain was worth it.

Russell was visiting in town so I sought him out and had a discussion with him. I related that many of my friends were questioning their choices — choices that brought public attacks from other NDNs for some, physical violence for others and for all, an overall sense of personal setbacks bordering on humiliation.

After listening and thinking about it for a bit this is what he said: “The way I’ve seen it is that every injury I took, every sacrifice I made and every personal cost I paid has been done on behalf of our people and ancestors. So I take these things as a badge of honor and they are things that I am proud of.”

He continued on with giving advice about how I could help out those who were going through tough times. He drew on his first hand experience and shared stories of his younger years. As we sat there I realized how much of an honor it was to know this man: Russell Means, Oglala and Indigenous Patriot.

Robert Chanate is a member of the Kiowa Nation and can be reached at rckiowa@gmail.com and twitter.com/rckiowa. He is from Carnegie, OK and currently lives in Denver, CO. He is also co-authoring a forthcoming book with Gyasi Ross appropriately called “The Thing About Skins,” and the website and publishing company for that handy, dandy book is www.cutbankcreekpress.com.

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