Russell Means and the American Indian Movement

Wednesday October 24, 2012

By Dina Gilio-Whitaker

This week Indian country lost one of its most well-known icons with the death of Russell Means. Even many non-Indians knew who he was because of his association with the American Indian Movement, Native America's equivalent of the Black Panthers. The media has been plastered with news of his passing, none of it without playing on the endless controversy inextricably connected to Means and AIM. Even though Means broke with AIM long ago his history with them will never be erased.

The American Indian Movement jumped into the fray of the civil rights movement with all the fervor and militancy of young Indians who knew their history and how it led up to their dismal realities of relentless poverty, land loss, alcoholism and a whole host of other social problems, and they were very angry about it. Many people--both Indian and non-Indian--opposed AIM's confrontational and sometimes violent tactics, but love or hate them, they drew the nation's attention to the people it was conditioned to forget. They inspired pride in people who had been beaten down for so long they often no longer knew who they were or where they fit in American society.

Having been born at the tail end of the baby boomer generation, I was a young teenager when AIM was in full swing. I was born into a Native family that had been torn apart as a result of government Indian policy and while I was always told to be proud I was Indian there was always a vague sense of confusion about what that meant, especially living in a big city far from the homelands of my ancestors. Seeing images on TV of real Indians fighting for things I didn't completely understand but sensed was right made a big impact. It was something I could relate to; the message was etched deep in my mind that to be an Indian meant that you had to fight for your rights because no one was going to give them to you.

The American Indian rights movement was messy. Mistakes were made that had devastating consequences. But revolutions usually aren't clean and easy, and I suspect that Russell Means long ago accepted that he would not always be remembered with fondness. Say what you will about him, but in the end he was a warrior at a time when Indians desperately needed warriors. May he journey well among the ancestors.


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