Interview by Dan Skye
On December 24, 2008, a delegation of Lakota leaders delivered a message to the State Department announcing that their people were unilaterally withdrawing from treaties signed with the US. No longer would they tolerate the federal government’s gross violations of these agreements; America was put on notice that the Republic of Lakotah had been re-created. The new nation would issue its own passports and driving licenses, and living there would be tax-free—provided residents renounced their US citizenship. As has been the case for the past 40 years, Russell Means, the longtime Indian-rights activist, was there, helping see the declaration through and cosigning it. “We are no longer citizens of the United States of America, and all those who live in the five-state area that encompasses our country are free to join us,” he stated.
Means is one of the best-known, most influential activists in the Indian community. He rose to prominence as a leader of the American Indian Movement, and participated in the 1969 takeover of Alcatraz that lasted 19 months. He also participated in AIM’s takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Washington, DC, and was one of the leaders in the famous standoff between Native Americans and the government at Wounded Knee in 1973. In recent years, he has directed Indian youth programs and worked vigorously to improve the conditions for his people in Pine Ridge, SD.
In addition to his lifelong commitment to Indian rights, Means has sought the governorship of New Mexico and battled Ron Paul for the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination in 1987. Many probably know him best as a talented actor who has appeared in numerous films, most notably Last of the Mohicans and Natural Born Killers. In all his dealings, Means says that he strives “to speak from the heart.” That forthrightness has sometimes caused controversy, but Means remains a vital presence in the American Indian community.
Describe growing up as an Indian.
I was born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, but I didn’t grow up there—I was five years old when we moved to California. My dad worked in the defense industry as a welder. In large part, I grew up in Northern California, in the Bay Area. I was the only Indian at San Leandro High School until my brother got there in the 10th grade. I was always very conscious of who I am. I always have been—through my relatives and extended family. I made continual visits back home.
When did your activism begin?
Not until after I got out of high school—then the Indian-relocation program was going full swing. [The Relocation Act of 1956 provided funding to establish “job-training centers” for American Indians in various urban areas, and financed the relocation of individuals and whole families to these locales. It was coupled with a denial of funds for similar programs and economic development on the reservations themselves—in fact, those who availed themselves of the “opportunity” were usually required to sign an agreement stating that they wouldn’t return to the reservation to live there.]
I started hanging around with Indian people at the bars in Los Angeles. The forced relocation of American Indians from their land into urban areas forced us to get together as independents. They didn’t put us in specific neighborhoods; they dispersed us throughout different ghettos and barrios. Our only social activity together would be at a local bar. But from the local bar, we formed athletic leagues and social events. That’s how we did our socializing as Indian people. It really opened us up to a whole range of different experiences in thinking from the different Indian peoples.
Talk about the early days of the American Indian Movement.
The American Indian Movement began in Minneapolis. Dennis Banks and Clyde Bellecourt were the founders of AIM. We sat in a hotel room one Saturday afternoon in Minneapolis, and we’re all drinking beer and socializing, and there’s about seven or eight of us, which included some of the women who were founders. We asked questions of ourselves: Who are we? Where did we come from? Why are we? And where are we going? It was the consensus that we return to our respective reservations and find out. We were fortunate that the real old people who had been born in the 1800s were still alive. They’d been raised by people who had been born free. None of them had been contaminated with the white man’s education; they had a clarity of mind and a purity of heart. They had our worldview intact as indigenous people—and, of course, our own language, our own songs.
AIM certainly caused concern for the government. Were you frightened of repercussions?
No, it was an exhilarating time. Freedom is an exhilaration. I believe if you have fear, you can’t be free. We come from a matriarchal society. Patriarchal societies are fear-based societies. Therefore, we had a head start on the rest of humanity, and we had no fear. We have trust in the unseen, to put it one way. The pride that was engendered, the self-dignity, was enormous—and it spread. It was thrilling.
Often there was dissension within the AIM ranks. What caused that?
We’ve all been colonized, unfortunately, and to what degree varies from individual to individual. Those disagreements were initiated out of misguided ego.
You became a prominent spokesperson, a handsome, articulate presence—even charismatic. How do you think you are perceived?
[Laughs] You know, I never thought of myself as good-looking. It wasn’t a consideration in my life. When I first joined AIM, a Crow man told me: “Now that you’ve joined AIM, you’ve made yourself a target. Remember that. But always speak from the heart and you can’t go wrong.” That’s all I’ve done my whole life is speak from the heart. Actually, our whole tradition is that way.
AIM often staged events and protests that were meant to tweak the government—like the Mount Rushmore event, where you and others planted a prayer staff there and renamed it “Mount Crazy Horse.”
The one thing I love in the American Indian Movement, and it was the first thing I learned: Don’t fool with bureaucracy—go right to the top. If you’re going to go to Washington, DC … figure it out. At Mount Rushmore, we went right to the top: These are our treaty rights, we own that land, and we’re going right to the top, man! Four white men up there, and I peed on George Washington’s head—one of the proudest moments of my life. Right in front of God and everybody.
What current obstacles do Natives face?
Well, as far as AIM is concerned, the obstacle has been and will always be the United States of America government and its subsidiaries—until it destroys itself.
Has activism changed over the past 40 years?
There’s a very big difference between then and now. When the civil-rights movement began, it wasn’t called “civil rights.” Everything was liberation—freedom, free speech, black freedom, women’s lib, gay liberation. Liberation, liberation! It was a great time in America. Everywhere you went, everywhere you turned, people were talking about liberation, and it lasted for a good 10 years. When you’re young, that’s a long time.
Then the government threw a couple words in there that killed it all: “civil rights.” All of a sudden, everybody lowered their sights on freedom down to “I want to ask the powerful white males for permission for the same rights and privileges that they have.”
We were now fighting for our “civil rights,” our “equality.” I don’t want to be “equal” to a white man—I don’t want to lower myself! Who wants to be a white male in terms of values? I come from a matriarchal society. Why women would want to lower themselves is beyond me!
How do you view Obama?
The problem is, everybody wants freedom as long as it’s easy—and that’s Obama.
Actually, I have to hand it to the controllers of Americas. They brought in the emperor with new clothes—and the whole world suddenly just changes. Obama offers hope because he’s like a preacher. Americans feel good about themselves. We were the worst people in the world under Bush. But now we’ve got Obama! We’re great Americans again! Even though Obama said before the election he’d consider invading Pakistan. And he’s not leaving Iraq—that’s the new Indian reservation.
Mass psychology, and it happened overnight! I have lived a very fortunate life in a fortunate time. In my lifetime, I witnessed this about America: In the late ’50s, it started turning itself from a producing, productive country into a consumer nation. By the mid-’80s, it was complete—a beautiful study of mass-psychological control of the masses. It was amazing. George Orwell saw it all. Americans are so easily led, like the slaves that they are.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about Native Americans?
There aren’t any misconceptions. There aren’t any conceptions, either—we’re out of sight, out of mind. And Hollywood is the second-most-racist, anti-Indian institution in America—just short of the American government. They’ve perpetuated stereotypes, and that’s what people think of us: We don’t have a brain, we’re still primitive. That’s why they won’t get rid of those sports-team names—we’re out of sight, out of mind. We don’t have any power in the white man’s world, so they don’t have to pay attention to us. They can’t be harmed politically or economically.
You must have distinct views on Hollywood’s Indian films. Give us your take on Dances with Wolves.
Remember Lawrence of Arabia? That was Lawrence of the Plains. The odd thing about making that movie is, they had a woman teaching the actors the Lakota language. But Lakota has a male-gendered language and a female-gendered language. Some of the Indians and Kevin Costner were speaking in the feminine way. When I went to see it with a bunch of Lakota guys, we were laughing.
Good movie … great movie. It was based on the truth—but, unfortunately, it was fictitious. I wish they had focused more on the story of Leonard Peltier itself.
One of the worst. One of the worst! One of the most anti-Indian movies ever. It’s a statement of the Jesuits.
Pathfinder, which you were in?
Huge disappointment. It was Marcus Nispel’s second movie. He remade The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; it made a $100 million, so he was hot at the time. He got to do his passion, which is American Indians. It’s all about violence, and there’s no story—it was a horrible, stereotypical movie and, of course, it starred a white superman who taught us how to fight, where to go, and how to walk across ice and everything else. The Native cast got together to change the dialogue, but it was all cut out. It got panned by critics.
Last of the Mohicans?
Great movie, except for that one scene—what I call the “African village” scene. Back before black liberation took hold on the African continent and in the United States, you always saw the star rescuing the fair maiden in the African village, with the chieftain on his throne and his sub-chiefs around him with all their plumage on. Of course, the entire village is yelling for blood.
I’ll name the movies that were good. In the ’50s, there was Broken Arrow, about Cochise. In the ’60s, there was Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here and Little Big Man. Then there’s The Outlaw Josey Wales and Last of the Mohicans.
One of the things Hollywood does to Indian people is, we’re only allowed to make two kinds of movies: Either we dress up in leather in the summertime, or we have to be drunken, dysfunctional misfits in movies like Skins or Smoke Signals.
In January, Lakota leaders withdrew from all treaties with the United States. You were at the forefront of this action. You even called some tribal councils “Vichy governments,” an allusion to French collaboration with the Nazis during World War II. Do you feel your rhetoric is divisive?
Listen, colonialism is divisive. Not only in America: look at Guatemala, at Africa, Pakistan, India. Colonialism takes its toll. I try to call a spade a spade—I can’t help it if people are brainwashed.
What challenges does the Republic of Lakotah face?
Back in the ’80s, under Carter, this whole five-state area, which is the Republic of Lakotah, was designated as a “national sacrifice area” because of its richness in coal and uranium and iron ore. The Black Hills Alliance defeated mining in the Black Hills through the lobbying of state legislators: Union Carbide, all of them—we beat those guys. That coalition was made up of Indian people, white ranchers—pure Westerners. Now they’re gone, our old people are gone, and just a few Indian people are hanging on.
But there are more battles in the future. We defeated the government interests once with the people of South Dakota, the landowners. And that’s what the Republic of Lakotah is all about: We want to include the landowners—especially family farmers and founding ranchers—in a free country.
The Northern Plains have been called by experts the “Saudi Arabia of wind energy.” The sun shines on the Northern Plains over 300 days a year. We have all of this free energy—we have enough wind, according to experts, to light up every major city in America 24/7, forever. But the coal companies control the energy of the West. Some may say that it’s an impossible dream to fight against those guys and expect to win, but we’re going to. People can only take a police state for so long, and you can’t mess with rural people. Because rural people are, by and large, mostly self-sufficient, or they have a very recent memory of self-sufficiency. They’re not used to being pushed around. So they will react like we did in the ’80s against the planned sacrifice that opened mining in the Black Hills. I can see that through arbitration and mass psychology in this country, they plan to colonize this rural area and the people. That’s another reason why the Republic of Lakotah was re-created. We can defeat them again.
We have non-Indians who have come in. These are new immigrants to the Republic of Lakotah, but these are all professional people, very skilled people. It’s amazing—they’re moving here. It’s not massive, and we wouldn’t want that, because we’re rebuilding the foundation of freedom. It’s going to be a free society. We have our four major plans: health, education, economics and politics.
You’ve run for tribal president in Pine Ridge four times. If you were elected, what would your agenda be?
Freedom—outright sovereignty. If you want to be sovereign, you have to act sovereign. Freedom isn’t free. You’re free to be responsible, and if you want to be responsible—therefore free—it’s hard work. But it’s pleasurable work.
I ran on the “Freedom” ticket on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and 45 percent of my people who voted wanted freedom.
Do you plan to run again?
No. We got a country to run.
Visit russellmeans.com or republicoflakotah.com