If I lived in South Dakota, I’d probably be in a nursing home. And that would be hell.
By Chris Roberts
As I enter the reservation, a wooden sign reads, "Land of the Oglala Sioux and Chiefs Red Cloud, Black Elk and Crazy Horse." The hand-painted lettering is all the more striking in comparison to the official government signs along the road that are riddled with bullet holes--each one progressively worse as I reach the outskirts of Porcupine, South Dakota.
I realize now why Russell Means, The American Indian Movement (AIM) activist, insisted I experience the reservation firsthand. I pull off the main road and drive a half-mile over a winding dirt road. The house dates back to 1917 and was the private residence of the first Indian agent assigned to Porcupine. Means finds this to be particularly ironic, as the building will be used to house his Total Immersion School to educate youngsters in the traditional Sioux manner. The house sits on eighty-five acres and includes a horse-breeding facility. The horses will be trained for hunting and jumping, and they will further integrate the children into the ways of Plains culture that have been lost over the years of assimilation.
I'm greeted at the door by Pearl Means, Russell's third wife. She is warm and friendly. Russell enters the room. He is more than six feet tall and wears his long, black hair in the traditional braid ties. He moves around the room with a frenetic energy. I can see why he was a fancy dance champion in his youth. Means helped change the way American Indians are treated in this country.
He became a leader of AIM shortly after the organization came together in 1968. He was involved in the 1972 action that damaged the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But it was the 1973 siege and occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota that made him nationally known. The town is named for the Wounded Knee Creek which runs through the region. Over the course of seventy-one days, a greatly outnumbered group of American Indians held the U.S. government at bay, as America watched.
In the center of the whirlwind stood Means: proud, defiant, and willing to die for his rights. Means took his experience with direct action to other Indian communities throughout the country during the 1980s. In 1991, he started an acting career, which has allowed him to press the cause for Indian rights before a larger audience. An inspirational speaker, he is in demand on the college circuit. At sixty, he shows no signs of slowing up. His all-consuming passion now is the total immersion program he has begun to implement at Pine Ridge It will consist of a school through the third grade that will focus on Lakota Sioux culture.
Means is also working on a total immersion community that will be based on a traditional Native way of life. His passion for these projects was palpable.
Q: What lasting effect did the occupation of Wounded Knee have on the Indian community at Pine Ridge?
Russell Means: It gave birth to self-dignity and self-pride and the idea that we can self-determine on our own merits. In 1973, the full-blood Indians on the reservation were living in abject poverty. They were totally overlooked, and their spirits were almost totally destroyed.
Our culture, our song, our old people--everything was denigrated by our own people, as well as by the larger society. What Wounded Knee did was give pride in just the fact that you are an Indian, and you can do something, and we have allies.
Q: Has Wounded Knee been accurately depicted in such books as Like a Hurricane (Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior, The New Press, 1996)?
Means: No, no one has done the proper research. Anyone who writes about Wounded Knee and doesn't interview the leadership ...
Q: You were not interviewed for the book?
Means: No, I wasn't interviewed. But when I say "leadership," I'm talking about the Oglala [one of the seven bands that form the Lakota nation] women who were responsible for Wounded Knee. That's the hidden story. It was the Oglala people, not the American Indian Movement. There were more than 250 Oglalas who went into Wounded Knee on the night of February 27, 1973. In the initial ten days of the siege, it was the Oglala people who were occupying Wounded Knee. Then, on March 8, the feds pulled back their roadblocks, and then all those Oglalas who were inside immediately went home to check on their families and they were not allowed back. Then, of course, other Indians from all over the nation started pouring in to Wounded Knee.
Q: What is the present condition of Indians in America?
Means: We are yet to be considered human beings, even though the Pope issued a papal bull in 1898 that declared us to be human beings. But to show you the institutional racism, the sports teams are still using the Indians as mascots.
The mainstream churches still have missionaries on Indian reservations at the beginning of the new millennium. They've had us captured on reservations a minimum of 125 years, and yet they still have missionaries here. They don't have missionaries in Appalachia; they don't have them in the ghettos or the barrios. They have churches that support themselves. I say to the Christians and to every missionary on the reservations, you're welcome to have a church here if you can support yourself. But if these churches can't support themselves, then take the hint and quit using our poverty for your direct mail solicitations.
We are a cash cow.
Q: Your father, Hank, played a role in the occupation of Alcatraz in 1964. Did he inspire you to become active in American Indian issues?
Means: No, but I was really proud of him, and I liked his outlook. The whole event inspired me to believe in the strategy of direct action. I knew at that young age that going to the Bureau of Indian Affairs was useless, absolutely useless. I grew up having no faith in the bureaucracy of government.
Q: Do you think the Bureau of Indian Affairs is still operating in the same fashion?
Means: Well, they keep losing our money, and they keep no records. And no one is ever reprimanded.
Q: How did you get involved in fancy-dance competitions when you were a young man?
Means: My mother was very proud of my participation in dancing Indian. When I expressed an interest in dance, she presented me with my first outfit, and I began fancy dancing. This was before it was commercial. These so-called Pow-Wows--we didn't even call them Pow-Wows in those days. It was a dance, a cultural event, and, of course, a celebration. It was also very anarchistic. People just came to sing and dance, and when it happened it happened. It was part of our culture, and it is no longer part of our culture, sad to say.
Colonialism has completed the destruction of the American Indian in the United States--the cultural destruction. Now it's a commercial event that only has to do with competition and money, and it's not an everyday thing anymore.
Q: Why has the traditional Indian dance become commercialized?
Means: The Americanization of America is what has happened. You know America always put forth this phony melting pot theory, but it's a reality now. They couldn't accomplish the melting pot economically; they couldn't accomplish it politically, or through education and science. But America has become a consumer society, and I see young people in the cities--of all colors and races--hanging out together over consumerism.
Children in poverty aren't trying to get out of poverty; they're just trying to rip off a pair of Nikes. So we Indian people are a microcosm of what's happening in America. We are now consumers, and our culture has gone.
Q: What are your thoughts on the Crazy Horse Memorial being sculpted into a mountainside in the Black Hills?
Means: When I got drunk with Korczak Ziolkowski [the sculptor who began the carving in 1947] at his home in 1972, he told me when referring to the sculpture, "In the words of P.T. Barnum, there's a sucker born every minute ." The Crazy Horse Monument is a farce. Once it is completed, lightning is going to strike and destroy the whole thing. There was never a picture of Crazy Horse. Ziolkowski gathered up all those old chiefs and gave them each $100 and asked them to pose and smoke the pipe with him, so later he could claim that he got their approval.
Q: What about the positive influence a representation of Crazy Horse could have on people? They might get inspired to learn more about him and other American Indians.
Means: The opposite happens. His story continues to relegate people to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, OK? Indian people are relics; we do not exist in the present. That makes it easy for non-Indians to say, "Oh, lo, the poor Indian, and we love his romantic image, and we are sorry for what our ancestors did to him, but we can continue to do it to these Indian people today with impunity."
That's why we responsible Indian people abhor carving up one of our sacred mountains in our holy land. Imagine going to the holy land in Israel, whether you're a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim, and start carving up the mountain of Zion. It's an insult to our entire being. It's bad enough getting four white faces carved in up there [on Mount Rushmore], the shrine of hypocrisy.
Q: Did you draw on any past experience in your acting debut as Chingachgook in the 1992 movie The Last of the Mohicans?
Means: When I was vying for the role against Dennis Banks [another AIM activist], I asked Michael Mann [the director], "Why us? We aren't actors." He said, "I was a documentary filmmaker in the early seventies, and when I wrote the character Chingachgook, I wanted him to embody what you and Dennis Banks represented to me in the seventies."
Wow, what a compliment! So that's what I harked to. I've always considered myself a man of integrity as a leader of the American Indian Movement and of Indian people. I will stand that test against anyone at anytime, anywhere. People called me a natural actor, but the way I feel about Chingachgook is the way I feel about myself: true to your own ancestors, therefore true to yourself.
Q: How's your total immersion program going?
Means: We start this fall with our pre-school. Both Hawaii and New Zealand are finding out that the best citizens in the country are coming from total immersion schools. In New Zealand, students can go from day care through college and spend their entire first twenty-two years of life in total immersion education. A student comes out not only bilingual but often trilingual. They're at the top scholastically of any endeavor they've chosen.
Q: Where are you recruiting your teachers?
Means: We're going to hire local people. The less education they have and the more fluent they are in the language, the better. A fluency in Lakota is the only prerequisite. Most of our teachings are in our songs. We have a song for everything, and the sciences are not only sung about but talked about and taught in preschool. Botany and biology and learning about the stars--this is almost a given from the cradle.
Q: Do you plan to emphasize oral tradition?
Means: I'm going to champion an oral society, and if I'm proven wrong, I'll freely admit it. An oral society develops both sides of your brain, and the utilization of your brain is more complete than in a linear education module. The written word limits your brain capability by immediately focusing on one area. You don't have any peripheral vision. It immediately divorces you from the environment. That is one of the reasons I co-founded a radio station--and not a newspaper.
Q: Will traditional dance be taught at the school?
Means: Oh, very definitely. Our singing and dancing will be an integral part of everyday life. That is the whole purpose of total immersion.
Q: You're also building a total immersion community?
Means: We have our total immersion community being built on 160 acres that my brothers and I have donated. We are going to build a self-sufficient community.
Q: How do you plan to become self-sufficient?
Means: In this five-state area--southeastern Montana, eastern Wyoming, western Nebraska, and the western Dakotas--the wind blows the most consistently of anywhere in the continental United States. So we are going to develop wind energy. And we have geothermal warm water under our reservation that we want to utilize for fish farming and year round agriculture in hothouses. Up here in the High Plains of South Dakota, the sun shines on the Oglala at least 300 days a year. So, we have solar, wind, and geothermal energy, and we are going to produce energy that we'll be selling back to the utilities.
This will be an income-producing source for the community. And we have horses, which will also be income-producing. The Plains Indians have a horse culture, so we are going to do what we know best; it's in our DNA The total immersion school and community--that is my legacy, and that is my future. We are confident, we are dedicated, and we're in love with the idea, so it will happen.
Q: Are you still active in the American Indian Movement?
Means: As far as I'm concerned, as long as I'm alive, I'm AIM. Every time I resign, the people have demanded me to return. Even though the American Indian Movement on a national-international scale has proven to be extremely dysfunctional, the American Indian Movement I was associated with I'm very proud of. We were a revolutionary, militant organization whose purpose was spirituality first, and that's how I want to be remembered. I don't want to be remembered as an activist; I want to be remembered as an American Indian patriot.
Q: What advice would you give to Indian youth?
Means: I would tell them what my uncle Noble Red Man said, "We Lakota people must never forget we were once a free people, and if we ever forget we were once free, we will cease to be Lakota." That's our charge as ancestors of unborn generations: to once again become free.
Chris Roberts is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, New York.