Süddeutsche Zeitung, 24.10.2012

Electric Warrior: Russell Means – a Remembrance

Russell Means, South Dakota

Russell Means image © Claus Biegert


He acted, reacted, and was celebrated for doing so. Russell Means was aware of his charisma and lit up whenever a camera was pointed at him. For a powerfully worded sound byte he was always good. Means, who dismissed the American Way of Life, was celebrated as an American Indian hero. Andy Warhol did his portrait.

Means was born in 1939 at Prisoner of War Camp #344 (as the South Dakota Pine Ridge Reservation was originally called by the U.S. War Department). He dropped out of four different colleges, and knocked around as a cowboy and dance instructor with issues before making it big in Hollywood. Russell, an American Indian Movement (AIM) activist from its inception in 1968, loved to fly First Class and watch the upset in the neighboring seats.

Between Russell's impoverished, Oglala-Lakota early childhood and his iconic fame as a film star, lie the stuff of history. Means made his biggest appearance in February of 1973 when he returned to Pine Ridge Reservation to occupy Wounded Knee, the site of the 1890 massacre (one of the blackest chapters of the pioneer days).

Russell was perhaps the loudest of the troop of AIM warriors who, dressed in Indian regalia, swooped in from the Twin Cities at the request of the reservation's traditional elders. Their mission was to bring to the world's attention the racism and imperialism practiced by the U.S. Government and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The AIM warriors declared secession from the United States, calling into being the sovereign Oglala Lakota Nation. If Russell wasn't the loudest of the troop, he was certainly the most photographed.

Blood boiled in Washington. The National Guard was sent in to stamp out the uprising. A special group of FBI agents arrived to take pictures, bend laws, and get names. But also landing at Rapid City were national and international reporters and film crews. The wild, wild west suddenly returned with a vengeance. Russell had his stage. »I don't want to talk about the environment and the American Indian viewpoint, I hate the word Native American. Its a government term, which was created in the year 1970 in the Department of the Interior, a generic term that describes all the prisoners of the United States of America.«

The years that followed were marked by racist tensions and, on the Sioux reservations, almost civil war. Russell survived a number of attempts on his life. (Plus a series of portraits by Andy Warhol.) As his fellow AIM warriors resorted to CDs to record their anger (John Trudell, Dennis Banks, Floyd Westerman), Means didn't want to be left behind and debuted as a singer with his Country-Rock album, Electric Warrior. In 1991, Michael Mann asked Russell whether he would like to play the roll of Chingachgook in a new film version of Cooper's The Last Mohican. Means agreed, saying he wanted to help rid Hollywood of all those phoney Indian cliches.

Russell appeared in over thirty TV and film productions, his presence guaranteeing authenticity, be it in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, or in the pre-Columbus epic called Pathfinder (where he fought against the Vikings), or in the Disney animation Pocahontas (where he lent Chief Powhatan his hard, raw voice), or in the portrayals of the Olympic Medalist Jim Thorpe, and the Hunkapapa medicine man, Sitting Bull.

The Electric Warrior was always switched to on: he wrote his autobiography, Where White Man Fears to Tread, campaigned for President as the nominee of the Libertarian Party, and started his own website, »Russel Means Freedom«. In his blog he provided a running commentary on American politics and culture as seen from the Indian perspective. Home on his ranch on the reservation Russell Means died of larynx cancer shortly before turning 73.

English translation: Craig Eldon Reishus