by Perry Groten
SIOUX FALLS, SD – After battling cancer last year, and a bout with pneumonia earlier this month, a famous South Dakota Indian activist is now well enough to re-emerge in the spotlight. Russell Means, a longtime champion of Native American causes, and more recently a Hollywood star, begins filming a new movie this month. This controversial activist and actor remains fiery as ever.
A throat cancer diagnosis in 2011 threatened to permanently silence a leading voice for Native Americans.
“I was supposed to be dead by September, and here I am,” Means said.
Means says he’s cured of the cancer. He didn’t seek conventional medical treatments, instead opting for traditional Indian medicine and relying upon prayers and encouragement from around the globe.
“It was massive. The emails we got and the people who took time out in the United States and around the world to write letters and put stamps on them and mail them. Wow. It was overwhelming. It was so gratifying,” Means said.
The well-wishers included movie fans who’ve followed Means’ acting career in films like “The Last of the Mohicans” and the animated “Pocahontas.” Now Means will play a role in a film adaptation of an Anton Chekov play starring Katie Holmes and William Hurt.
“The art of acting, I don’t know how to put it really. It is fulfilling, I guess,” Means said.
As Means prepares to take his place in front of the movie cameras once again, the real-life drama that surrounded his years as a leader of the American Indian Movement, or AIM, has never really exited the world stage.
“AIM is always around; it will flourish again,” Means said.
Means is no longer active in AIM, but he says he’s proud of what the group accomplished amid the political and cultural turmoil of the 1970s.
“And it did result in immediate change, not institutional change, but it did force people to take a step back and take another look at the type of world they were running,” Means said.
The world took notice of AIM when Means and other members occupied the village of Wounded Knee during a 1973 standoff with federal agents that lasted 71 days. The occupiers claimed the Pine Ridge tribal government was corrupt, and also demanded the federal government honor broken treaty obligations. The nightly network media coverage of the occupation led many people to become sympathetic to the Native American cause, while others felt the armed standoff only promoted a culture of violence that slowed progress for American Indians. But Means is quick to defend AIM’s taking up arms.
Perry Groten: The potential for violence, is that the way to go? To make a statement like that for an armed…
Means: You know, I resent that question! The American Indian Movement only involved itself in violence in self-defense! Never did we attack, never! And the court cases prove it.
To Means, prejudice against Native Americans is just as prevalent today as it was back when AIM was on the front lines of the protest movement.
“I’ll never be pleased with the racism in South Dakota. Bunch of Neanderthals still run this state,” Means said.
Means’ harsh words are tempered with a hope that education will open more eyes to the needs of Native Americans while breaking down ethnic barriers. To Means, the youth hold the key to ending racism, a dream that’s been his lifelong goal.
Groten: Are you mellowing with age?
Means: I’m wiser.
Means says he was saddened by the death earlier this year of former South Dakota Governor Bill Janklow, who was diagnosed with brain cancer after Means received his throat cancer diagnosis. The two were often adversaries during Janklow’s days as a prosecutor in Indian country, but Means says Janklow never forgot the friendship they would form later. He says Janklow was even willing to make arrangements to have Means treated at the Mayo Clinic for his cancer, but he declined the offer.
Means will discuss the Wounded Knee takeover Friday night, April 27, as part of a weekend conference at Augustana College.