I never met Russell Means. I had the chance to meet him when I was a kid. In fact, I saw him a few times as a youngster, but I was so intimidated by him—he seemed bigger than life—I never actually went to speak to him. I heard a lot of things about him as I grew older; good stuff, bad stuff. However, he was somebody about whom, as Native people, everybody seemed to hold an opinion.
When I heard of his passing, I was sad, just like when you hear about anyone of your heroes passing. I know members of his family, and that made it even more painful; yet, I thought it was appropriate the fashion and time in which he passed—on his own terms, loudly, and with the world taking notice. I don’t think that it was a coincidence that he passed at the exact moment that the National Congress of American Indians’ Annual Conference was convening—Big Brother Means was a throwback, a non-conformist, a fighter. He wanted nothing to do with this current era of conciliatory politics, where some tribal leaders work hand-in-hand and take photo opportunities with the very non-Native elected officials who insidiously work for Native peoples’ demise. Means wanted none of that—work with the U.S. government?? No, he was lightning, and he wanted to burn down the White House as a symbol of American colonialism. Indeed, Means’ approach was to draw a line in the sand and dare someone to cross it. And, in fairness, that exciting and beautiful approach was not always effective—politics have changed, and sometimes those techniques that worked in the past were outdated. Sometimes compromise is necessary nowadays.
Still, regardless of questions about his approach, he was a warrior that worked diligently and passionately for the betterment of Native people. He loved Native people profoundly. He knew that we deserved better, but we had to demand better.
I see Russell Means as the Indigenous equivalent of Malcolm X. See, the truth is that Native people needed (and still need) the fiery doppelganger of thoughtful, mainstream organizations like National Congress of American Indians in the same way that Martin Luther King, Jr. needed Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael. Whereas National Congress of American Indians speaks politely and eloquently, using big words and paperwork to demand that the United States give Native people our just due, Russell Means was the person with the chip on his shoulder that would simply smack those dirty thieves in the mouth and take as much of that “just due” as he could. The truth is that these approaches need each other—they are not at odds. Neither approach is perfect, but both approaches are needed for Native peoples’ success and survival.
Symbiotic. Both necessary. Complementary.
Russell Means was loud. And eloquent. And flawed. And dangerous. And sexy. He made the image of a huge Native male being politically active something acceptable, even ideal. He wasn’t a bookworm that people could easily ignore—he spoke loudly, and powerfully—so much confidence in himself that those that were threatened by him just wished that they’d hear some bad news about him someday so they could stop hearing about him. “Y’know that Russell Means was in a plane crash…” Never happened; heck, he even whooped cancer for a long time. Sexy. Long hair, leather jackets, brown skin—he was the image of a Native person that all of us have, whether it’s politically correct to say so or not. Men wanted to be him, women wanted to be with him—the Indigenous James Bond. At a time of lagging self-esteem for Indigenous people, where we were taught to believe, after 500 years of ugly genocide, forced assimilation and conquest, that everything “Native” was ugly, dirty, evil, stupid, he made “looking Indian” cool again.
He made being Native sexy. Imperfect, but a start to reclaiming our collective sense of self-worth.
Every single Native person on this continent owes him a debt of gratitude. Thank you Russell Means—the toughest Indian in the world.
Gyasi Ross is a member of the Blackfeet Nation and his family also belongs to the Suquamish Nation. He wrote a book called Don’t Know Much About Indians (but i wrote a book about us anyways) which you can get at DKMAI.com. He is also co-authoring a new book called Of Course I’m a Boy, Silly!, and the website and publishing company for that handy-dandy book is CutBankCreekPress.com (coming soon). He also semi-does the twitter thing at Twitter.com/BigIndianGyasi