Russell Means, Lightning and Sexiness: The Toughest Indian in the Whole Wide World

Gyasi Ross

“…after I die, I'm coming back as lightning. When it zaps the White House, they'll know it's me."

Russell Means

I never met Russell Means. I had the chance to meet him when I was a kid. In fact, I saw him a few times as a youngster, but I was so intimidated by him—he seemed bigger than life—I never actually went to speak to him. I heard a lot of things about him as I grew older; good stuff, bad stuff. However, he was somebody about whom, as Native people, everybody seemed to hold an opinion.

When I heard of his passing, I was sad, just like when you hear about anyone of your heroes passing. I know members of his family, and that made it even more painful; yet, I thought it was appropriate the fashion and time in which he passed—on his own terms, loudly, and with the world taking notice. I don’t think that it was a coincidence that he passed at the exact moment that the National Congress of American Indians’ Annual Conference was convening—Big Brother Means was a throwback, a non-conformist, a fighter. He wanted nothing to do with this current era of conciliatory politics, where some tribal leaders work hand-in-hand and take photo opportunities with the very non-Native elected officials who insidiously work for Native peoples’ demise. Means wanted none of that—work with the U.S. government?? No, he was lightning, and he wanted to burn down the White House as a symbol of American colonialism. Indeed, Means’ approach was to draw a line in the sand and dare someone to cross it. And, in fairness, that exciting and beautiful approach was not always effective—politics have changed, and sometimes those techniques that worked in the past were outdated. Sometimes compromise is necessary nowadays.

Still, regardless of questions about his approach, he was a warrior that worked diligently and passionately for the betterment of Native people. He loved Native people profoundly. He knew that we deserved better, but we had to demand better.

I see Russell Means as the Indigenous equivalent of Malcolm X. See, the truth is that Native people needed (and still need) the fiery doppelganger of thoughtful, mainstream organizations like National Congress of American Indians in the same way that Martin Luther King, Jr. needed Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael. Whereas National Congress of American Indians speaks politely and eloquently, using big words and paperwork to demand that the United States give Native people our just due, Russell Means was the person with the chip on his shoulder that would simply smack those dirty thieves in the mouth and take as much of that “just due” as he could. The truth is that these approaches need each other—they are not at odds. Neither approach is perfect, but both approaches are needed for Native peoples’ success and survival.

Symbiotic. Both necessary. Complementary.

Russell Means was loud. And eloquent. And flawed. And dangerous. And sexy. He made the image of a huge Native male being politically active something acceptable, even ideal. He wasn’t a bookworm that people could easily ignore—he spoke loudly, and powerfully—so much confidence in himself that those that were threatened by him just wished that they’d hear some bad news about him someday so they could stop hearing about him. “Y’know that Russell Means was in a plane crash…” Never happened; heck, he even whooped cancer for a long time. Sexy. Long hair, leather jackets, brown skin—he was the image of a Native person that all of us have, whether it’s politically correct to say so or not. Men wanted to be him, women wanted to be with him—the Indigenous James Bond. At a time of lagging self-esteem for Indigenous people, where we were taught to believe, after 500 years of ugly genocide, forced assimilation and conquest, that everything “Native” was ugly, dirty, evil, stupid, he made “looking Indian” cool again.

He made being Native sexy. Imperfect, but a start to reclaiming our collective sense of self-worth.

Every single Native person on this continent owes him a debt of gratitude. Thank you Russell Means—the toughest Indian in the world.

Gyasi Ross is a member of the Blackfeet Nation and his family also belongs to the Suquamish Nation. He wrote a book called Don’t Know Much About Indians (but i wrote a book about us anyways) which you can get at DKMAI.com. He is also co-authoring a new book called Of Course I’m a Boy, Silly!, and the website and publishing company for that handy-dandy book is CutBankCreekPress.com (coming soon). He also semi-does the twitter thing at Twitter.com/BigIndianGyasi

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forbiss's picture
Gyasi Ross wrote... "...reclaiming our collective sense of self-worth." This was exactly Russell Means's self-imposed mission. I believe he had a firm understanding of his worth from the first moment he publicly and furiously claimed his own portion of the world's stage. From Indian country in Oklahoma, I and my two younger brothers, whose ancestors endured Removal and were born on an Oklahoma reservation, and without any true understanding of the conditions in Sioux country or the backstory of Russell's "flamboyant escapades", gradually came to understand the purpose behind the retributive justice that guided his aim. In short, we became prouder and more protective of our Indian heritage. Mr. Ross, I acknowledge my indebtedness to the life lived by Russell Means, gladly and humbly.
gsevalikova's picture
The world is now a more dangerous place without this much needed politically perceptive man. He kept track not only of bad deeds done here in the States, but also overseas, closely monitoring plans and events that may harm the nation and hemisphere. He saw for himself when travelling to central America what hardcore leftist and rightist guerilla bands were doing to people down there,as well as who the big powers were that sponsor them-and still do. He went on the Infowars channel with Alex Jones, and made observations regarding serious events ignored by mainstream medias. Though we out here did noy know him personally, we admired his efforts so much. We wish he was well enough to run for president again,so his passing was crushing news. I can't help but wonder if he'd want everyone who is able, to get sources of news that can help you through what's about to hit. Too many politicians are indebted in some very odd ways, to foreign cororations and governments, who want to see the Constitution and Bill of Rights destroyed, and if you still doubt this, please go to the coasttocoastam.com site,and on the lower right corner you will see "Knapps News" and there will be"News most underreported by mainstream media" and when you click on there is Project Censored 2013, and right there is "The rise of the Police State."