A powerful figure committed to the struggle against colonialism, Means was a relentless advocate of American Indian rights and of indigenous people worldwide. He first came to national prominence on Thanksgiving in 1970, when he led the American Indian Movement (AIM) in a day of national mourning at Plymouth Rock. “Today you will see the Indian reclaim the Mayflower in a symbolic gesture to reclaim our rights in this country,” Meansannounced at the time. Means became the first national director of AIM that year and continued what would become a lifetime commitment to activism. He was shot on several occasions and served prison time over the course of his life of protest.
In 1972, Means led the seventy-one-day standoff with federal agents at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation, demanding federal inquiries into broken treaties. Two members of the community were killed and one federal officer was paralyzed in the numerous shootouts that occurred over the ten-week period. But the occupation was empowering for Means and brought attention to the conditions on the reservation. “We were surrounded by the armed might of the United States of America, the most militarily powerful country in the world, but we were free,” Means remembered in 1995. “For seventy-one days we walked in freedom, without a white man’s rules or regulations.”
Russell Means also sought to combat racist mascots in sports. As director of Cleveland’s chapter of AIM, he brought suit (which was eventually settled out of court) against the Cleveland Indians for the team’s stereotypical, dehumanizing mascot, which Means saw as an attack on American Indians’ cultural heritage. The fight to rid the team of its racist mascot continues to this day, and Cleveland’s AIM chapter has now been protesting the team for almost forty years.
While Means was committed to fighting colonialism at home and abroad, he was often critical of the left and its approach to revolutionary struggles. In one of his most famous speeches at the Black Hills International Survival Gathering in 1980, he reflected on Marxism and anarchism. “You cannot judge the real nature of a European revolutionary doctrine on the basis of the changes it proposes to make within the European power structure and society,” he said. “You can only judge it by the effects it will have on non-European peoples. This is because every revolution in European history has served to reinforce Europe’s tendencies and abilities to export destruction to other peoples, other cultures and the environment itself.”
“There is another way,” Means said in the speech. “There is the traditional Lakota way and the ways of the American Indian peoples. It is the way that knows that humans do not have the right to degrade Mother Earth, that there are forces beyond anything the European mind has conceived, that humans must be in harmony with all relations or the relations will eventually eliminate the disharmony.”
Diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2011, and given only a short time to live, Means used native treatments and remedies and opted out of chemotherapy and radiation. He died on his ranch this week and is survived by his wife, Pearl Daniels, and his nine children.
“I hope to be remembered as a fighter and as a patriot who never feared controversy—and not just for Indians,” Means wrote in his autobiography. “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.”