If Martin Luther King had instigated a civil rights action that resulted in a 71 day siege with the US government Marshalls and agents employing armoured personnel carriers, airforce jets and up to 500,000 bullets fired would it not be at the forefront of the history of US Civil Rights? American Indian Movement leader Russell Means who died aged 72 recently instigated such a civil rights action in 1973 that resulted in the Wounded Knee Occupation. Sadly contemporary American Indian history is ignored. Perhaps Russell would be a more famous figure if he died for his cause like Malcolm X and Dr. King? Russell survived numerous attempts on his life as he was not an easy man to kill. I once had him point out his bullet wounds, stab wounds and shrapnel wounds. But then again American Indian Movement activists were routinely murdered and it never made a headline. How ironic that there is not even racial equality when looking at the actions of civil rights activists.
I first met Russell thirteen years ago. I’m a film director from Scotland and was documenting the repatriation of a sacred Ghost Shirt from a Scottish museum to Wounded Knee. Due to twists of fate within three hours of hitting Pine Ridge Indian Reservation I was at his home and he asked me to film three days of political meetings. Wow. Going in he was a hero of mine, Now, today as I grieve his loss he is a very dear friend. Twice I was by his side during unsuccessful Tribal Presidential Election Campaigns. He starred in a movie, Rez Bomb I made on his reservation and also featured in a feature documentary A Thunder-Being Nation about Pine Ridge that I made over 13 years. I once helped bail him out of jail, the next day he sat with me and watched my soccer team Manchester United end Arsenal’s Invincibles undefeated run. For three years I had the honor of being Fire Keeper at his families Sun Dance ceremony. I have never met such a force of nature.
Other than his activism he is known for his movie career, which started at the top in a lead role opposite Daniel Day Lewis in the epic Last of the Mohicans. In 1984 for a time he was Larry Flynt’s running mate for US President. Four years later Ron Paul defeated him to be the Libertarian Party’s Presidential Candidate. But it will be for his leadership of the American Indian Movement through it’s heyday and turbulent times in the 70’s that he will be best remembered for.
Like many of us he was complex and yet simple. From the simplicity came his strength: Seeing the injustice perpetrated against indigenous peoples, he fought for their freedom. He devoted his life to that. His knowledge was remarkable and unwaveringly tied to his world view. He had a temper. He was passionate. He was very very funny. His fight against cancer was monumental. It should have killed him long before it did if Western Medicine’s diagnosis was to be believed. But as strong as he was throughout this it was matched every step of the way by his remarkable wife Pearl. With all the lessons Russell learnt throughout his life his final lesson that was revealed as a result of the cancer I feel was the most powerful. That was the absolute love, commitment and devotion Pearl committed to him. That blew his mind.
Our relationship was based on three fundamentals; we enjoyed exercising each others brains, we could laugh together for hours and we loved each other. Not many people have the honour and joy of befriending one of the most extraordinary individuals of our age. Russell truly was that. I am eternally grateful for knowing Russell and his impact on my life has been seismic. Our last time together was a two day road-trip eight weeks before his passing. I can’t imagine this world without him.
When we weren’t together we communicated via email through Pearl. One day he rang, which he never did. It was to tease me because my Manchester United were kicked out of the Carling Cup by relative minnows. That summed Russell up to me.
The morning of his death he appeared to me in the most beautiful of dreams and as I awoke I knew he was gone but that all was spectacularly well with him. That he was soaring. He told me once that he was going to come back to earth as lightening and strike the White House. Knowing Russell, I wouldn’t bet against it. They better invest in a bigger lightening rod.