Book Review on Russell Means
Whether we agree with the politics of the American Indian Movement or not, a new book entitled Where White Men Fear to Tread, The Autobiography of Russell Means (New York: Martins Press 1995) gives an important perspective on a form of Indian leadership in contemporary times. Additionally, the book gives Means a venue to tell his side of the story on how AIM operated during a period of reawakening for Indian people. Modern writings such as the Means book are needed to give a balanced account of the turbulent years of the radical 1960 and 1970s. It was a time where life changed drastically for all Indian people.
Means, no doubt, was a much criticized man of his generation. He was criticized not only for his revolutionary tactics and grandstanding but also his perceived ego-trip at the expense of the masses. These charges, warranted or not, are addressed to a degree in his book. Personalities aside, the book covers a critical time in the lives of Indian people. The movement opened up the eyes of many Indian people and more than a few closed doors. It was a time when Indian people decided they were no longer satisfied with the status quo and were ready to follow anyone to change society.
The Indian people had long been acclimated to years of exploitation, racial prejudice, blatant BIA politics and poverty so rampant that it defied explanation. It was a time for change. All of these numerous factors extended to the reservation and the urban Indian. In fact, one of the original purposes of the AIM group was to stop the terror tactics of the Minneapolis police force where beating up a drunken Indian was considered a sport.
This scenario was comparable in towns bordering Indian reservations where the treatment was the same from narrow-minded, racist police forces.
Changes started to happen elsewhere in America when groups such as the Black Power and Woman’s Liberation Movement decided to stand up for their collective rights, which started a chain reaction in minority circles.
In Indian country, people like Russell Means too decided they had enough of the daily mistreatment. Thus, Russell Means was viewed as a reactionary, but was he really? Or was it the only method? Whether we can give Russell Means, Dennis Banks or Clyde Bellcourt any credit for this dramatic change because of their often confrontational politics, it nonetheless happened.
Means’ early life was not much unlike that of many of the rest of Indian people—a roller coaster ride, for sure. He grew up poor on an Indian reservation where he encountered racial prejudice, lived in poverty and in an alcoholic home, and attended schools where teachers did not care if Indians learned or not.
Means experienced several divorces and openly admitted a problem with alcohol. Later he experienced all the frustration of trying to work in the white world where he found advancement was a word that did not include Indians. Sound familiar? All these factors played a huge role in Means’ political evolution.
But, the whole book was not all about Means. One strong area of this writing was the coverage of the bits and pieces of different tribes’ oral traditions and history. This alone made the book worth reading. Starting with the creation of the Indian Center in Cleveland, Ohio, in the 1960s, Means used his organizing ability to get a center established that provided needed services for the Indian people in that city. Shortly afterwards, Means met the leaders of AIM, “all dressed up like Indians” at a conference in San Francisco, and his life changed forever, both at home and in his career. Means joined the ranks of Clyde Bellcourt and Dennis Banks and soon became part of the inner circle of AIM.
In the book, Means described what AIM stood for: they spoke out against the injustices of the past, especially all the land grabs; they challenged Christianity, colonialism and pointed out how the BIA had achieved a slightly privileged class of colonial administrators. In his indictment of tribal councils, Means referred to them as “hang around the fort Indians” and “to live a better life than the rest of the people, they would do literally anything the BIA told them to do.”
Sometimes the truth hurts and this message was met with severe resistance from the BIA, tribal governments and many Indian people. The book gives an in-depth analysis of his experiences in this regard. Since the message was often delivered in a militant manner, many Indian people did not want to listen or enlist in the cause.
This didn’t prevent AIM from recruiting a good following of Indian people who believed it was the time for change, and it was. Indians from all over the country followed Means and AIM to protests in small racist towns in South Dakota, large cities, the takeover of Wounded Knee, and to the top of Mount Rushmore to deliver the message that Indians were not going to take unfair treatment anymore. AIM grew in strength over the years but not without internal power struggles, which was a drawback for the needed united front of a movement. The book describes the antagonism between the leaders of AIM. For instance, solving an argument with a gun was not out of the question. And the many other power struggles, no doubt, prevented more goals from being reached.
As expected, the leaders of AIM had to put up with persecution from tribal governments, local police and the court systems. If it were not for lawyers like Larry Leventhal and Bill Kunstler putting in long hours in their defense, the AIM leaders would have sat in jail for years. But getting “pro-bono” work from top notch lawyers is not an option available for the rest of Indians.
Another aspect of the book gives Means’ side of the story in Longest Walk of 1978—a protest to bring national attention to Indian problems—to counter the charges that he only participated at the end of the walk for publicity. Means may not be the most popular Indian to ever come down the trail, but the book is a must read to get one version of Indian leadership in modern times and how obstacles are thrown in the path of change.