Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Russell Means and the Yellow Thunder Camp

Another man that I associate with South Dakota has died--Russell Means, the controversial Indian activist, succumbed to esophageal cancer.  Where to start talking about Russell Means?  Russell was born on the Pine Ridge Reservation that adjoins the Rosebud Reservation where I lived and taught from 1980-1982.  Russell was a legend on the Rosebud Reservation, and I don't mean to imply that his legendary status was necessarily positive.   On the other hand, in my limited experience, there was always in-fighting among Indians so everything you heard about someone else had to be taken with a grain of salt.  (I use the term, Indians, instead of Native Americans because that's what my Indian friends used.  The preference is the tribal name, and most of the folks described here are Sioux.)

Russell's family moved to California when he was a child, and he became another disenfranchised urban Indian, falling victim to every stereotypical vice--drugs, drinking, brawling, arrests, jail time, failed marriages, domestic violence--a pattern that continued off and on throughout his life.  On the other hand, Russell had the ability to identify legitimate Indian issues and bring them to the forefront of the national consciousness, working in conjunction with other Indian activists.  At the same time, he was never adverse to getting publicity for himself in the process.  Russel Means, like many Indians, was a survivor.

Russell Means as young man with AIM
When he and Dennis Banks and other American Indian Movement (AIM) activists occupied Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1973, the purpose was to bring to the forefront the injustices of government policy against the Indians while it also showed the complicated relationships and in-fighting on the reservations themselves. You can read more about the seige of Wounded Knee here.

I did meet Russell Means once at the Yellow Thunder encampment in the Black Hills.  The Sioux lay claim to the Paha Sapa, sacred lands and hunting grounds of the Black Hills taken from them.  They have a legitimate complaint.  The encampment was a protest and a demand for a return of the sacred lands of their ancestors.  Click here to read about this on-going land dispute, the trail of broken treaties and the positions of both sides.

I remember there were armed guards on the dirt road entering the camp, but we were expected.  One of our friends had made arrangements for us to visit.  I don't remember if we were searched, but the security looked like they took their jobs seriously.  Most of our group of friends and I were content to explore the camp, peeking into tipis and watching life in the camp. 

My ex-husband, the politico, who at this time was ghost writing speeches for a friend of ours who was tribal chairman of one of the Sioux tribes, sat at a picnic table and talked with Russell Means.  My ex and I were researching a paper on Indian education and the American Indian Movement at the time, but it appeared that the role of the Sioux women at the encampment was to "wait on" the men, so I was not impressed with that scenario.

My big memory of that trip was disappointment.  We were supposed to return to the camp the next day to meet Willie Nelson!  I was so excited.  Willie, of course, is a big supporter of Indian rights (as well as farmers), and we were also in Rapid City to attend a Willie Nelson concert--he did a benefit for the Yellow Thunder Camp that we attended.  The next day Willie was to visit the Yellow Thunder Camp, and we were going back, too.

aerial view of Yellow Thunder encampment in the Black Hills
Now Willie Nelson is someone whom I've always wanted to meet.  Then it snowed and we didn't have vehicles that could make it to the camp in the snow.  Opportunity thwarted!

Postscript: Russell Means' ashes were spread over the Yellow Thunder Camp after his death.  May the struggle to address the injustices perpetrated against Native Americans of all tribes soon be over and let justice prevail for our country's native peoples.


  1. So sorry that your opportunity to meet Willie didn't come to pass! Still, I think meeting Russell Means was a rarer opportunity, if possibly, not as much fun. Isn't if funny how Willie and his charisma affects people? What a down-to-earth, genuine personality he has. Willie and Waylon...reminds me of our youth, when those two outlaws permeated the consciousness of so many of our friends!

    1. Jenny, you are right. I loved the whole Yellow Thunder experience and both Willie and Russell have charisma, as did my ex-husband. It's funny how charisma overcomes other character flaws. I was basically making fun of my low-brow self, preferring Willie. Besides, I didn't want just a celebrity encounter--I wanted to sit and talk to Willie and his band--upclose and personal! How I did love Willie and Waylon, Jessi Colter--the harmonies, the memories!

  2. Charisma does not overcome other character flaws....It is an integral part of a sociopathic personality, which Russell Means epitomized. I lived for a while at YTC on invitation by Russell Means, wrote my master' s thesis on the legal case of YTC and the sacredness of the Black Hills, a document that was used in court in the Yellow Thunder Case trial to prove the sacred nature of the land was recognized as early as 1874 (military journal I uncovered through research in military archives) and I worked with Russ closely over a period of thirty years. He was the most outrageous character I have ever met in my life.

    1. I guess I meant to imply that people are drawn to those with charisma despite character flaws (or what I would consider character flaws based on my upbringing). It sounds like Russell Means and the Sioux were fortunate to have your interest and support in the Black Hills case.