Russell Means: Renegade, Patriot, Freedom Fighterby William Norman Grigg
Confined to a barren prison camp in Washington, the displaced Paiute Indians were dying. The Interior Department had promised to send rations, but they never arrived. After being exposed to the elements during the winter of 1880, fifty-eight of them had died – including thirty children -- and many more were seriously ill.
James Wilbur, the pious fraud who served as Indian Agent at Fort Simcoe, wouldn’t exert himself to see that his prisoners were cared for, and wouldn’t permit them to migrate to more hospitable surroundings.
Sarah Winnemucca, daughter of the renowned Paiute chief of the same name, had gone to Washington to lobby Interior Secretary Carl Schurz for relief. In May she returned with a written promise that the department would arrange for the Paiutes to relocate to Lovelock, Nevada, where they could at least obtain food. When she arrived in Yakima, however, Sarah was informed that Wilbur had received no instructions from Washington.
Sarah called a public meeting in which she recited, in detail, the broken promises that had been made to her. In short order Sarah was summoned to a second meeting with Wilbur, who intended to slap her down for impudently assuming that a promise to an Indian meant something.
“Your people were content here until you came back and stirred them up,” Wilbur insisted, condescendingly rebuking Sarah of “putting the devil into their heads.”
That accusation came from a well-fed hypocrite who – in the classic “Indian Ring” tradition – was growing wealthy by embezzling money and supplies promised to the pitiful, dying people over whom he presided.
“Mr. Wilbur, you forget that you are a Christian when you can talk so to me,” Sarah chastised him, her composure barely concealing her contempt. “You are starving my people here, and you are selling the clothes which were sent to them. That is why you want to keep us here…. I say, Mr. Wilbur, everybody in Yakima City knows what you are doing, and hell is full of just such Christians as you are!”
“Stop talking or I will have you locked up!” bellowed Wilbur.
“I don’t care,” Sarah defiantly replied. “My people are saying I have sold them to you and get money from you to keep them here. I am abused by you and by my own people, too.” By this time, Sarah had become a nationally renowned lecturer and advocate of Indian rights, and she promised that she would use her formidable influence to expose Wilbur’s murderous corruption.
“From this day on,” records Dorothy Nafus Morrison in her biography, Chief Sarah, “Father Wilbur was Sarah’s unrelenting enemy.” Wilbur had previously extolled Sarah’s “noble work” and her impeccable character. Now his official reports bristled with insistent and conveniently vague references to Sarah’s “disreputable intrigues” and intimations of personal depravity. Sarah “is utterly unreliable and no dependence whatever can be placed on her character or her word,” insisted Wilbur in a communique to the Interior Department.
If Sarah had been alive and active during the 1970s, she would most likely have been described as a “militant,” an “agitator,” and quite possibly as a Communist.
The FBI would have collected a detailed dossier on her mistakes and shortcomings – whether real, exaggerated, or invented – which would have been artfully leaked to the press. She would have been surrounded by paid informants and provocateurs who would keep her under surveillance, sabotage her campaigns, and create whatever trouble they could.
After being arrested on spurious charges, Sarah might have found herself in federal court listening to one of the FBI’s paid perjurers describe her role in a grandiose Communist plot against the very existence of the United States.
In brief, she would have received the same treatment given to the American Indian Movement (AIM) and its most prominent spokesman, Russell Means, who died of cancer on October 22. He is most widely remembered for his prominent role in the 71-day standoff at Wounded Knee, in which a handful of poorly armed AIM activists withstood a siege carried out by a huge federal military force that intended to slaughter them.
The AIM was, to borrow Will Durant’s phrase, a medley of discordant fragments. The same could be said of Means, who made no effort to disguise his personal shortcomings or to sanitize the troublesome aspects of his career as an activist.
If the Soviet Union had somehow managed to invade and occupy the United States, the regime it would have imposed on the country would have differed little, if at all, from the Indian reservation system – which, let us not forget, was constructed by Carl Schurz, a German-born socialist who had been one of Lincoln’s “Red Generals” during the war against the South.
It’s not necessary to endorse everything AIM did -- or all of the alliances it made -- in order to understand that the organization’s grievances were entirely legitimate. Given that AIM’s objective was to liberate people living in America’s equivalent of the gulag archipelago, it’s reasonable to characterize it as a militant anti-Communist group. The role played by the FBI, on the other hand, was quite similar to that played by the Soviet Cheka in dealing with independence movements within the nations subsumed into the USSR.
“They are a conquered nation, and when you are conquered, the people you are conquered by dictate your future,” declared Norman Zigrossi, a high-ranking FBI special agent in Rapid City, South Dakota, in 1977. “This is a basic philosophy of mine. If I’m part of a conquered nation, I’ve got to yield to authority.” The proper role of the FBI in “Indian Country,” according to Zigrossi, was that of a “colonial police force.”
Protecting the lives and property of Indians was not a priority for the American Cheka. In 1972, when an Oglala man named Raymond Yellow Thunder was tortured and murdered by two white men in Gordon, Nebraska, the local police refused to pursue the case, and the FBI couldn’t be bothered to intervene. So Means and his AIM colleague Dennis Banks organized a protest of more than 1,000 Indians from nearby reservations, who converged on Gordon and “occupied” it until local authorities arrested and prosecuted Yellow Thunder’s killers.
It was this act of “Communist agitation” – that is, a demand that the laws be faithfully and equitably enforced – that prompted the FBI to make AIM a target of its COINTELPRO initiative. Secret police informants and provocateurs began to infiltrate the movement. One of them, a sociopathic former cop (and likely wife-murderer) named Douglas Durham – would organize some of the most notorious “militant” activities carried out in the name of AIM.
“Durham’s history as a blackmailer, thief, and cheat was readily available to the FBI from the Des Moines police, which in the 1960s had dismissed him from the force; a police psychiatrist had diagnosed him as a `paranoid schizoid’ personality with `violent tendencies’ and termed him `unfit for employment involving the public trust’ after the unexplained death of his first wife in 1964,” recalls Peter Matthessien in his book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse.
Durham, the psychiatrist concluded, was “unable to tell right from wrong.” While I withhold judgment regarding the merits of psychiatry as a discipline, it’s reasonable to conclude that this particular diagnosis was quickly and amply validated.
In 1972, Durham was identified by a Des Moines grand jury as the “major culprit” in a police corruption scandal involving a sportswear theft ring: Durham, working undercover at a factory, would steal clothes that were fenced by his comrades on the police force. In the same year he was convicted of extortion on behalf of the Mob, but the conviction was thrown out by an appeals court, which ruled that the case had been tried in the wrong venue. In any case, by this time Durham was safely in the employ of the FBI.
During his September 1976 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Internal Security, Durham described the AIM as a domestic salient of a Communist-backed insurgency devoted to subverting American independence (and, for all we know, sapping and impurifying all of our precious bodily fluids). Durham wasn’t the only FBI sock puppet who was used to depict AIM as a cadre of “Red Indians.”
During the 1974 trial of Means and Banks on charges arising from the 71-day standoff at Wounded Knee, the prosecution called a “surprise witness” named Louis Moves Camp, a 22-year-old who had been expelled from AIM because of problems involving alcohol and drug abuse.
Speaking from the witness stand in a federal courthouse in St. Paul, Minnesota, Moves Camp “offered testimony in support of the FBI’s cherished belief that the international Communist conspiracy was somehow behind AIM; he declared that agents from Russia, China, and Czechoslovakia had attended the first meeting of the AIM-sponsored International Indian Treaty Council” a few months earlier, recounts Matthiessen.
The first problem with Moves Camp’s testimony – which was almost certainly scripted by FBI agent David Price – is that the defense was able to document that he was in California at the time of the alleged events he described. He was also awaiting trial for robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, and assault causing bodily injury.
A few days before his testimony, Moves Camp went “bar-hopping” across the border in River Falls, Wisconsin with Price and another FBI agent named Ronald Williams. After the sozzled Feds retired for the evening, Moves Camp took a high school-age girl to a remote location and raped her. The agents arrived at the River Falls jail, flashed their credentials, and freed their informant. Although Moves Camp wasn’t prosecuted for that assault, within a year he was tried and convicted on a second rape charge.
Such was the character of a young man expelled by AIM – and eagerly embraced as a star witness by the FBI.
Most of the WoundedKnee-related counts against Means and Banks were thrown out, and the juryacquitted them of a single charge of “conspiracy.” Before dismissing the case, Judge Alfred Nichol lambasted the FBI and the prosecution for well over an hour.
“The fact that incidents of misconduct formed a pattern throughout the course of this trial leads me to the belief that this case was not prosecuted in good faith or in the spirit of justice,” Nichol observed. Tellingly, he also condemned the “unlawful military involvement at Wounded Knee” during the 71-day standoff. “We don’t want the military running the civil affairs of this country, or having anything to do with the execution of the laws,” the judge pointed out.
The Wounded Knee occupation was a protest against the lawlessness that prevailed on the Pine Ridge Reservation under the rule of Dickie Wilson, the extravagantly corrupt, federally installed tribal dictator. Wilson’s “Tribal Council” – a festering puddle of nepotistic corruption -- was sustained by an officially sanctioned death squad called the Guardians Of the Oglala Nation (or GOONs), which routinely harassed and beat the ruler’s critics while doing nothing about the scores of unsolved violent crimes committed on the reservation each year.
Wilson was of use to the Feds because of his willingness to defy treaty law to turn over tribal lands to government-favored mining and industrial interests. When AIM protesters rallied at Wounded Knee to protest Wilson’s administration and demand the recognition of rights guaranteed by treaty, the dictator sent the GOONs to surround them. Playing to the most credulous element of the public, Wilson insisted that “There is no doubt that Wounded Knee is a major Communist thrust” and he promised to annihilate the dissenters. Given the pandemic violence that had characterized Wilson’s reign, that threat was entirely credible.
Means, the supposed ringleader of the purported Communist cabal, depicted the standoff in terms that resonated with the ideals of 1776, rather than the ideology of 1917:
“This is our last gasp as a sovereign people. And if we don’t get these treaty rights recognized, as equal to the Constitution of the United States – as by law they are – then you might as well kill me, because I have no reason for living. And that’s why I’m here in Wounded Knee, because nobody is recognizing the Indian people as human beings…. We haven’t demanded any radical changes here, only that the United States Government live up to its own laws. It is precedent-setting that a group of `radicals,’ who in the minds of some are acting outside the law, are just in turn asking the law to live up to its own. We’re not asking for any radical changes. We’re just asking for the law to be equitably applied – that’s all.”
“I’m not going to die when I walk into Pine Ridge and Dickie’s Goons feel I should be offed,” Means concluded. “I’m going to die fighting for my treaty rights.”
The FBI was eager to grant Means the honorable death he envisioned. After the GOONs had surrounded Wounded Knee, the U.S. government mobilized the largest domestic military deployment since – well, since the last time the Feds set out to slaughter Indians at the same location.
Armed FBI agents, U.S. Marshals, SWAT teams, and federally supervised GOONs formed an iron ring around the village. Colonel Vic Jackson, head of the Pentagon’s Civil Disorder Management School, was tapped by the FBI to implement “Operation Garden Plot,” a martial law blueprint (one that still exists, in some form, today). The FBI envisioned a scenario in which the Army would invade and “pacify” the village before the FBI went in to “arrest” whoever might survive the onslaught. Armored Personnel Carriers were on hand to deal with what were described as “bunkers” (and were, in fact, root cellars). Phantom F-4 jets flew low-altitude reconnaissance runs over the town.
“For seventy-one days, a few hundred men, women, and children, supplied by volunteer airlifts -- and by sympathizers who slipped in and out during the night – had challenged a large paramilitary force abetted by hundreds of short-haired vigilantes, red and white, who were eager to wipe out the `longhair troublemakers,’” Matthiessen recounts. “For Dick Wilson’s men, the threat posed by the occupation of Wounded Knee was economic: under an Independent Oglala Nation, the Tribal Council and its dole would end.”
The FBI clearly intended to annihilate AIM at Wounded Knee. At one point, the Bureau ordered the media to leave the area and then warned the occupiers to send out their women and children. The anticipated massacre might well have been thwarted by the presence of local white residents whom the FBI called “hostages” – many of whom voluntarily stayed behind to protect their supposed captors from the Feds.
“The fact is, we as a group of hostages decided to stay to save AIM and our own property,” explained Wilbur Reigert, an elderly resident of the village. “Had we not, those troops would have come down here and killed all of these people. The real hostages were the AIM people.”
A little more than two months after the siege began, mainstream public opinion was turning in favor of AIM. During the standoff, the Feds threw several hundred thousand rounds of ammunition into the village. Two of those rounds killed AIM supporters, and another left a third paralyzed. A cease fire agreement was reached. The White House agreed to review violations of Indian treaties, and investigate civil rights abuses on the reservation. In addition, the Justice Department would audit Wilson’s official accounts. The Feds made those promises with glib insincerity that characterized all of their dealings with the Indians, and displayed the familiar insouciant disdain in violating them.
Hundreds of AIM supporters were prosecuted after Wounded Knee; nearly all of them were either acquitted or saw the charges dropped. The FBI escalated its covert war against the group, fomenting internecine squabbles, abetting the worst instincts of some of its members, and in several cases facilitating outright murder.
In 1975, another paramilitary invasion of the Pine Ridge Reservation – complete with helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, a chemical warfare team, snipers, and SWAT operators -- occurred after two FBI agents were killed in a shoot-out. After fleeing to Canada, Leonard Peltier – the chief suspect in the killings -- was extradited on the basis of what a federal court later admitted was perjured testimony. Peltier was convicted of murder and imprisoned for life. The evidence presented against Peltier was identical to the case made against two of his associates who had been acquitted of all charges.
Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, the FBI agents who died in the shoot-out have been beatified as heroes and martyrs – but nobody has ever explained why they were on the reservation in the first place. The agents were supposedly on the reservation to arrest a young man named Jimmy Eagle for stealing cowboy boots after a drunken fight.
Why would the Feds be involved in investigating such a petty crime after years of ignoring murders, rapes, and rampant police brutality? One possible answer to that question is found in the fact that the day before the shootout, Dickie Wilson had turned over a large, mineral-rich tract of the reservation to federal control, in violation of the 1868 treaty. This suggests the possibility that the Feds were looking to create a pretext for a paramilitary raid intended to clean out any remaining opposition to Wilson’s junta.
Means dissociated himself from AIM in the late 1970s. Over the next two decades he became a successful film actor and, much more importantly, a passionate and eloquent exponent of the non-aggression ethic.
In a singularly graceless obituary of Means, a reliably foolish and incurably ill-informed commentator accused the Indian activist of fomenting Communist revolution and seeking to establish “a foreign entity within our nation’s borders.”
That statement is a glistening nugget of unalloyed stupidity. Means, who was not a “foreigner” in any sense of the word, wasn’t seeking to destroy the United States; he insisted on claiming the rights promised to his ancestors in treaties that were made pursuant to the authority (such as it is) of the U.S. Constitution. Failing that, he emulated the patriots of America’s founding era by asserting independence from a distant and irremediably corrupt central government.
I will grant that the largely notional “Independent Republic of Lakotah” created by Means is a “foreign” entity, in this sense: It aspires to be a polity based on sound money, honest commerce, and peaceful cooperation. It’s difficult to see how this is the fruit of “Marxist militarism.”
“What’s happening in my country is also happening in your country,” Means warned Americans of all backgrounds shortly before his death. “You don’t even know it, but you’re the Indians of the 21st Century, and that’s very sad.”
Russell Means never believed that he had a “patriotic” duty to consider himself part of a conquered people and therefore subject to the whims of his conquerors. What American worthy of the name would?
Although this presentation is a bit heavy with collectivist tropes, it does offer a very good overview of the Federal Government's war against the Plains Indians:
A quick personal note:
In the interests of full disclosure I should acknowledge that my perspective on Means and the AIM has changed dramatically over the past decade -- as a quick examination of chapter six of this book will demonstrate.
William Norman Grigg [send him mail] publishes the Pro Libertate blog and hosts the Pro Libertate radio program.
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