Tuesday, October 23, 2012

RIP Russell Means

Activist, actor, musician, agitator, politician and former American Indian Movement (AIM) leader Russell Means passed today from esophageal cancer, at the age of 72.  He died at his ranch located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota,  the place where he was born in 1939.  Means was a fierce advocate of American Indian rights and led dozens of protests and uprisings throughout his life ranging from seizing the Mayflower II in Plymouth, Mass on Thanksgiving day in 1970 (protesting discriminatory treatment of American Indians), to orchestrating a 1971 prayer vigil atop the Mount Rushmore monument in South Dakota (dramatizing Lakota claims to the Black Hills), to organizing cross-country caravans in 1972 to Washington, D.C. (protesting a century of broken treaties by the U.S. government), to leading a boycott of Cleveland Indian games in the 1990s (protesting the use of Chief Wahoo as a racist, caricatured mascot/logo).

Russell Means' method of protest was often controversial and violent.  He was arrested many times, served time, shot several times, and criticized as an "opportunist" by critics.  According to the New York Times: "Strapping, and ruggedly handsome in buckskins, with a scarred face, piercing dark eyes and raven braids that dangled to the waist, Mr. Means was, by his own account, a magnet for trouble — addicted to drugs and alcohol in his early years and later arrested repeatedly in violent clashes with rivals and the law. He was tried for abetting a murder, shot several times, stabbed once and imprisoned for a year for rioting. He styled himself a throwback to ancestors who resisted the westward expansion of the American frontier. With theatrical protests that brought national attention to poverty and discrimination suffered by his people, he became arguably the nation’s best-known Indian since Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse."

In protesting Chief Wahoo as mascot and logo of the Cleveland Indians, Russell Means referred to its continuing use as "unconscionable."  He was outspoken throughout his life challenging professional sports franchises and collegiate athletic programs use of American Indian mascots and mimicry of sacred native culture and tradition.  When asked about Florida State's mascot Chief Osceola, Means responded that "we’re the only entire ethnicity in America that is still stereotyped."  In describing American Indians as the only minority group in the United States that is still stereotyped, Means focused in on an interesting phenomenon that has been written about by scholars and debated in symposia:  Why when it would be unthinkable to call a sports team by a racially charged nickname in connection with African American, Latino or Asian citizens, is it still somehow tolerated to refer to teams as "Redskins," "Indians," "Braves," "Blackhawks," "Utes," and "Seminoles"?

Russell Means is most recognized for two well known portrayals, though very divergent:  First, he led a 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, the site of the 1890 massacre of more than 350 Lakota men, women and children, often referred to as the last major conflict of the American Indian wars, where protestors demanded strict adherence by the federal government to all Indian treaties.  Second, he starred as Chingachgook in Michael Mann's 1992 epic "The Last of the Mohicans" alongside Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe.  Means received critical attention for his portrayal of the fiery, brave father/leader of the Mohican people.

Russell Means used his notoriety to advocate on behalf of equality on behalf of American Indians until his untimely death.