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

Robert Chanate

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 [email protected] 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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forbiss's picture
Submitted by forbiss on
Posterity has a welcoming pedestal of honor awaiting Russell Means. His place alongside other famous iconic American Indian personages is assured. Regardless of any perception of undue human frailties or faults, history will find that in retrospect, he never put a foot wrong. Russell Means has been and will always epitomize the sterling symbol of American Indian [This nomenclature was preferred by Mr. Means, I've read] hope and pride. Boldly and astutely, Russell Means, usually with disarming charm or piercing irony, revealed his own confidence that the very sound of his name gave pause to any decision or action that affected the lives of his people. Nothing in the way of the many upcoming memoriams for Russell Means will belie Mr. Chanute's personal presentation of a man whose astounding visionary attributes will become more evident in Indian time. My own mourning is greatly assauged. Mr. Chanute's recount of elegaic memories of Russell Means has made the walking on of this supremely self-actualized man as celebratory it is sorrowful.

Submitted by sinnmac on
Russell Means celebrity if you wish to call it that , afforded myself the opportunity to be exposed to the indigenous lifestyle. It shed light on the positive and negative aspects of indigenous life today . Russell your are a global spokesman for human beings of all color , thank you for your thoughts , visions and love for the earth and its people.

100IndigenousAmerican's picture
Submitted by 100IndigenousAm... on
I shared a few laughs and serious discussion throughout the years with Russell. He was always asking if I wanted coffee or something to eat; it did not matter if we were in California, D.C. or on the Dine' Rez he was always giving. He is a good memory for me although our encounters were brief throughout the years. He fought for justice, he was brave, and stood strong when it was most needed.

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
Thanks for all your contributions and all your help, Mr. Means! You made us relevant in the modern modern.