I don't have a picture of me and Russell Means, who died yesterday at the age of 72, like I do have of me and George McGovern. But our paths did cross, several times. I was a young kid working on a ranch down in southwestern South Dakota, just off the Rosebud Reservation, and the American Indian Movement was in full swing in that area. I was working with some Lakota ranch hands on the place, but I was afraid of those wild AIM guys. At that time Russel Means was active on the reservation, trying to revive some traditions that were being lost, and there was a sun dance planned near Ghost Hawk Lake, between Parmalee, SD, and St. Francis.
It just so happened that the ranch where I was working was north of Parmalee and my boss wanted me to drive a tractor to St. Francis, where we were going to work some land. That meant I had to drive the tractor past where the sun dance was being held. And it didn't have a road gear. So, I remember full well the anxiety I had as I crossed bridges marked with spray-painted AIM lettering and other "Red Power" slogans. And fearing what might happen as I neared the sun dance. But nothing did. Russell Means, the warrior/trouble-maker, in our view, was supposed to be there. I couldn't see much. Later, as I passed a little settlement of houses, some kids began to run out from their yards, and they could have caught me easily, even easier on bicycles, but they apparently had little interest in me.
Years later, I talked with Russell Means on the phone when I was researching the reaction of Indians to the popularity of "Dances With Wolves." He denounced that film as one of the most racist movies ever, and although I agreed that there were problems with the film, there wasn't much of a chance to convey that to him. He wanted to be heard. Shortly afterwards I learned that he had been filming "Last of the Mohicans" about that time, and I was impressed with his role in that--a very non-stereotypical character. But at that same time, what many do not know, was that he was also playing a very stereotypical role in a computer game, "Under the Killing Moon," one of the first computer games to include live action video.
I also seem to remember that my grandfather, who lived in Sioux City, once rented a house to Russell Means, which was right next door to him. I remember a woman coming to the door, paying the rent, and my grandfather telling me, "That's Russell Means, in the car." We knew who he was then. That was maybe 1970 or so.
So, another of these iconic figures for me is gone.