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Winona LaDuke, Published October 27 2012

Letter: Hero who taught us moves on

Russell Means was a hero. His death is a great loss to America, not just to American Indians. He challenged us to be better people.

In 1973, life was not good on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, the reservation from which he came. Life expectancy was around 44 years of age; the reservation had a murder rate eight times higher than the most violent American metropolis; repression reigned. Off the reservation, things were worse. In 1972, Oglala Raymond Yellow Thunder was beaten, stripped naked and paraded in the American Legion in Gordon, Neb. He was stuffed in a car trunk, and a few days later died of injuries.

South Dakota and Nebraska were perhaps the most racist states in the country, barring perhaps Mississippi. That depends on if you were a native or a black person. People had to stand up to that. The elders of the Oglala Lakota Nation asked for help. Many American Indians – from the Twin Cities, from urban areas around the country to which they had been driven – came. Means came. That was the beginning of the American Indian Movement.

End and beginning

The passing of Oglala Lakota activist Means to the Spirit World a few days ago marked the end of an era, and, hopefully, it marked the beginning of a new one. Means was a leader, and an Ogichidaa, one who stood for the people. He joined with hundreds of other native people in the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973, a

71-day occupation that came to symbolize the renaissance of the dignity of native people. It was a time when a people said, “This is enough.”

The occupation of our own lands was met with the largest military force response of the federal government (according to Pentagon documents uncovered later, the government deployed 17 armored personnel carriers, 130,000 rounds of M-16 ammunition, 41,000 rounds of M-40 high explosives for grenade launchers as well as helicopters and other aircraft).

For those of us who were raised in the time that followed Wounded Knee II (named after the notorious massacre in 1890 at the same site), we were grateful for the commitment of individuals like Means, and in awe of them as larger-than-life icons. The media was fixated on Means, Dennis Banks and the Bellecourts – as the warriors they imagined we were. The American imagery needed new Indians for the cowboys and Indians era, and in some ways, the media set a bar the rest of us could not meet. We were raised in their shadow. Yet we followed their direction.

Just his name

While I received a very good American education, I also received a very good indigenous education, and some of it was at the direction of Means and other leaders of the American Indian Movement. I am indebted to him and his contemporaries, like Pat Bellanger, Clyde Bellecourt, Banks, Lorelei DeCora and Madonna Thunderhawk, for that. Unto himself, Means became perhaps the most prominent. He became an icon – one of a few images painted by Andy Warhol, an actor in “Last of the Mohicans,” “Natural Born Killers,” the voice of Pocahontas’ father in the movie of the same name, and many television series. Through it all, he continued his political critique of America and his passion for indigenous peoples. He was one of few native people who could command the cover of a magazine or a headline with just his name.

He was large in life. At his passing, we acknowledge his presence. This is not about debt; it is about gratitude and it is about the future. Since the time when native people stood up in the 1970s and said we have a right to exist, we have been to the United Nations, and in 2007 the U.N. finally affirmed the rights of indigenous peoples.

Work to do

Pine Ridge is still one of the four poorest counties in the United States, and native religious freedom, sacred sites, languages and ways of living remain under assault. White Clay, Neb., just south of the reservation, has some 14 residents and manages to sell 4.4 million cans of beer a year to a largely Oglala population, and despite lawsuits and many protests, continues to hold its head high.

There are fewer Raymond Yellow Thunders, but there are still native people being killed for their land in the Western Hemisphere, particularly on the front lines of hydroelectric dams, mining and oil projects in the Amazon. There is still an absolute need for people to be treated with dignity.

Means lived life proudly as an Oglala man. He lived fully and left us much to be thankful for. We honor him by continuing the work.

LaDuke is executive director, Honor the Earth, and works and lives on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota.