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Native ways // The making of an activist



The Autobiography

of Russell Means

By Russell Means with Marvin J. Wolf

St. Martin's Press, $26.95

Reviewed by Elizabeth Hayes

Growing up in Vallejo, Calif., Russell Means learned two concepts that would figure prominently in his later life.

Playing near the cliffs and rocks of the Carquinez Strait, he learned the pleasures of freedom. And when other school boys taunted him after seeing the latest John Wayne Western at the Saturday matinee, the future American Indian activist learned about the pain of racism.

Means spent about a dozen years of his childhood and adolescence in Vallejo, a seeming lifetime away from his activism in the American Indian Movement and, now, his career as a movie actor.

In between, his life took many twists and turns: He was a delinquent teen, dance instructor, accountant, political organizer, activist, actor and running mate of pornographer and one-time presidential candidate Larry Flynt. He also sought the Libertarian Party's nomination for president in 1988.

Where White Men Fear to Tread offers a candid account of Means' personal struggle against alcoholism and anger, of being in and out of work and of failed marriages.

A leader of the American Indian Movement in the 1970s, Means made a name for himself through bold and confrontational tactics _ guerrilla theater to spotlight the Indian cause, broken treaties and other injustices.

In early 1970, AIM founder Dennis Banks asked Means to join AIM in confronting the National Council of Churches to demand that money raised in the name of Indians go to Indians. Means was sold.

"A week in Detroit with AIM had changed my whole outlook. It had crystallized thoughts and feelings and desires long buried within my psyche," Means writes. "No longer would I be content to work within the system. Never again would I seek personal approval from white society on white terms. Instead, like Clyde (Bellecourt) and Dennis and the others in AIM, I would get in the white man's face until he gave me and my people our just due. With that decision, my whole existence suddenly came into focus. For the first time, I knew the purpose of my life and the path I must follow to fulfill it. At the age of 30 I became a full-time Indian." And with that decision, his life would never lack drama.

He participated in the 1970 occupation at Mount Rushmore, where he urinated on the stone head of George Washington. His activism was relentless: the takeover of the Mayflower replica at Plymouth Rock on Thanksgiving Day 1970; the 1972 occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs; the 71-day siege of Wounded Knee in 1973, where U.S. troops had massacred 350 American Indians in 1890.

He also served a year of hard time in 1978 in connection with a courthouse riot in Sioux Falls, S.D., and was stabbed in the chest by another prison inmate. He was almost killed again while investigating the plight of the Miskito Indians of Nicaragua, when Sandinista soldiers bombed a village where he was staying.

Means, 56, says he is "honest about my shortcoming as a human being and a father and husband." He has been married four times and has 13 children. But there's more to his story.

"The spirituality is kind of skipped over and a lot of reviewers have concentrated on my honesty, my confusion in my life, criminality," Means says.

He wrote the book in part because little has been written about contemporary American Indians.

He thinks that conditions for American Indians in his lifetime have gotten worse economically and emotionally, but better spiritually and culturally.

"We are in the midst of a cultural renaissance of my people," he says. "It's a return to our spirituality, to seeking our values as distinct peoples."

He said the growth of casinos on American Indian lands has given them a "burst of fresh energy to be economically free," but it's not real independence.

"You don't earn. You become dependent on another form of handouts," Means says.

His most recent incarnation is as a Hollywood actor. He acted in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, lent his voice for Powhatan in Disney's Pocahontas and played Chingachgook in Last of the Mohicans.

He says he hopes to continue acting and also produce movies. He is working on a feature film about the 1973 Wounded Knee siege. "I enjoy being an artist," he says.

How does he wish to be remembered?

"I was an Oglala Lakota patriot," he says. "That's all I've ever wanted or needed to be."

This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times.

Knight-Ridder/Tribune Information Services