“You have made red niggers of my people!” Russell Means shouted at the standing-room-only crowd in the Cheyenne tribal building in Lame Deer.
Russell Means died a week ago Monday from throat cancer at his Porcupine Ranch in South Dakota at age 72. A Native American activist, Means was despised and worshiped in a bold series of careers in which he left his mark on American culture in broad slashes.
Hanging around Berkeley, Means tasted the excitement of demonstrations, small riots, police intervention and revolutionary rhetoric.
An American Civil Liberties Union lawyer in Los Angeles recalled meeting Means while she as a rookie reporter was covering the Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Los Angeles.
“I knew Russell Means before he became an Indian,” she said. True believers have little faith in those chasing another cause.
Newspapers soon referred to him as a “militant activist,” especially after he stepped up as a leader of the 1973 uprising at Wounded Knee – a bloody confrontation that raised America’s awareness about the struggles of Indians and gave rise to a wider protest movement that lasted for the rest of the decade.
I ran into Means in Custer, S.D., the day before the takeover of Wounded Knee. For several years he seemed to be everywhere.
In his later years Means would become a union card carrying actor. He was not only a born actor but accumulated valuable experience as a key player in the guerrilla theater that was the American Indian Movement.
Means and his hearties boarded a replica of the Mayflower on the East Coast. Next, Means and company shouted vows of vengeance from the stone heads of Mount Rushmore. AIM took a stand at the South Dakota village of Wounded Knee, where blue coats once massacred more than 300 Sioux. At Custer Battlefield, Means and a rifle-bearing crew terrified a cluster of white Custer buffs, triggering the renaming of the battlefield to include the role of Indians fighting to defend themselves, their families and homeland.
Before surfacing as an artist who worked in oils and film, Means joined a South American campaign to call global attention to the plight of the persecuted Miskito Indians in Brazil.
That night in Lame Deer, when Means accused the dominant culture of making “red niggers” of his people, he was tossing out the line that he knew would be quoted in the region’s newspapers the next day.
Means gave good quote. More often, he gave excellent quote. A professional promotion artist, he had set the scene with a description of recent walk through a reservation landfill. The dump was covered with plastic eggs that once held pantyhose, oversized K mart toys, broken TV sets and other marks of a consumer economy. He shouted his accusation at a Northern Cheyenne audience but intended it for the press. Means seldom wasted good quote on civilians.
The speech ended and Tim Lame Woman, Cheyenne activist and organizer of the event, asked the audience to form a line past a table loaded with steaming pots of beef stew and aromatic pans of fry bread. The crowd had nearly drained past the table when I noticed more people entering the building.
One by one they filed past the pans and kettles. Each was handed a bowl of stew and a slab or two of fry bread. They came and they came. In the back of the room those who had already eaten and were waiting for seconds formed a growing crowd.
“Read your Bible lately?” someone asked Lame Woman.
“Why?” he wondered.
“Better bone up on the tale of the loaves and fishes,” the questioner warned.