I’m More Indian Than Russell Means
By: David Yeagley
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, February 11, 2002
I FINALLY MET RUSSELL MEANS in person. I had debated him once on the Hannity & Colmes TV show, but that was by satellite. Until last month, I had never met the controversial Indian radical, movie star, author and politician face to face.
To tell the truth, I was a bit intimidated. Russell Means is a major Indian leader compared by some to a modern Sitting Bull. Imagine my surprise upon discovering that, in a most crucial way, I am more Indian than he!
I’m not talking about blood quantum. Like me, Russell is a "breed," part white, part Indian. But my way of thinking is 100 percent Comanche. And Russell’s way of thinking, I was shocked to discover is, well, kind of New Agey.
Don’t get me wrong. He’s a very impressive man. I met him January 28 at Augustana College, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, at a conference dedicated to improving race relations between whites and Indians.
Like many Oglala Lakota, Means is a giant. He towers over me. When he mounted the podium, he spoke in the classical Indian oratorical style slow, deliberate, expressive and filled with power.
But his first words threw me for a loop.
"I’m Russell Means," he said. "I’m a convict."
He then launched into a lurid confessional, of a sort I had not heard since my days as a social worker, when I used to sit in on group therapy sessions for abused and emotionally disturbed youth.
Means confessed to alcoholism, wife abuse, acts of criminal violence and more.
At first, my social work gears kicked in. I felt compassion for him. But as he segue-wayed, in a smooth and practiced fashion, into a catalog of his achievements in the American Indian Movement, I began wondering if his criminal record was not also a source of pride to him bear claws on a necklace, eagle feathers on a war lance.
My suspicions grew as other Indians opened their speeches with the same Alcoholics-Anonymous-style confessional. Speaker after speaker unveiled private worlds of pain, shame and guilt to the group.
My friend Erik Enno was disgusted. He is a Cheyenne River Sioux, a former Marine and a student at the University of North Dakota who strongly supports keeping the Fighting Sioux mascot.
In the car driving home afterwards, Erik remarked, "You know, I could have got up there and said, ‘My name is Erik Enno, and I’m not a convict.’"
I sensed that Erik was even a bit peeved with me, at that point, for having spent so much time hanging out with Russell Means.
I did end up spending many hours with Means during my Dakota trip, and got to know a great deal about him, each revelation more surprising than the last.
He declared to me bluntly, "Your whole image of the Indian as a warrior comes from the white man!"
Indians were not warlike until the white man made them so, he lectured. Rather, they were matriarchal, humanitarian, tolerant and multiculturalist.
I could hardly believe my ears. Was Russell Means denying the warrior tradition of his own people?
I thought back on his speech. At one point, while decrying the use of Indian mascots for sports teams, Means had actually condemned sports themselves as breeding grounds for violence and aggression. He as much as implied that baseball and football teams should be abolished, along with their mascots.
I couldn’t help thinking about the great Indian tradition of team sports, such as lacrosse. Were these too inventions of the white man, in Russell’s revisionist history?
Given Russell’s personal problems, which he shared so freely at the conference, I can understand why he might feel uncomfortable with violence and aggression, in any context. And I wouldn’t be surprised if he has been sentenced to more than a few months of compulsory violence counseling, given his troubles with the law.
My heart goes out to Russell and his family. I pray for his healing. I admire the courage with which he struggles each day with his inner demons.
But I cannot follow a man who denies the warrior traditions of my Comanche people. Those traditions are real. They were passed down to me by my ancestors. No amount of New Age psychobabble about matriarchy, tolerance and multiculturalism can erase them.
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