This was an especially difficult morning for Clyde Bellecourt.
First, Bellecourt learned that his “brother,” Russell Means, had died, at the age of 72, at his ranch on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
One of the former leaders of the Minneapolis-based American Indian Movement, Means was surrounded by traditional Oglala Sioux spiritual leaders who told him Sunday night that “the spirit was coming to get him.”
Means, Bellecourt says, was at peace, ready to move on.
But shortly after learning of Means’ death, Bellecourt received a call from CBS, which added to his sense of loss.
“They just wanted me to say controversial things about Russell,” Bellecourt said. “They kept asking about Wounded Knee. It was clear that when they think of Russell, they think of Indians with rifles at Wounded Knee.”
Confrontation only small part of legacy
Confrontation, Bellecourt said, was important to the revival of American Indian pride, but it should only be a small part of the legacy of people such as Means.
“The whole story and the positive things that have happened don’t get reported by the mainstream media,” said the 75-year-old Bellecourt, who remains active in Indian affairs in Minneapolis.
Those positive things that grew out of the American Indian Movement?
In Bellecourt’s view, they include a long list of things: Indian treaty rights, casinos on reservations, rejection of the whites’ “organized religion” and a return to traditional spiritual ceremonies, colleges and junior colleges on reservations across the country, recognition of indigenous people around the globe by the United Nations.
There also are small but potent organizations, such as the American Indian Opportunities Center in Minneapolis. That organization, with roots in AIM, has health and dental clinics on Franklin Avenue and also trains American Indians to work in health fields.
The Legal Rights Center in south Minneapolis also has AIM roots, Bellecourt said. That organization has not only helped hold Indian families together but also has been a springboard for U.S. District Court Judge Michael Davis and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, who began their careers there and now have a deeper understanding of Indian issues than most in public life.
Before AIM, none of this existed for American Indians, Bellecourt said.
Means was not among the small group of AIM founders in 1968. At the time of the founding, Means was in Cleveland, running a government-sponsored program that was set up to help Indians adapt to urban life.
Bellecourt was the first AIM leader, elected after giving a fiery speech calling on a small group of Indians about the need for “confrontation politics. . . [to] stand up against organized religion, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and public education.’’
AIM first began to make a ripple shortly after its formation, forming patrols on Franklin Avenue, to protect Indians from all forms of violence, including police brutality.
Within two years, Means had come aboard.
‘A warrior in every sense of word’
“He was a real warrior in every sense of the word,” Bellecourt said. “He was charismatic, not afraid to put his life on the line.”
Means helped lead a number of confrontations that created national headlines, culminating with the 71-day takeover of Wounded Knee in 1973. Amid the sounds of rifle fire – two Native Americans were killed and a reservation agent was paralyzed by a gunshot – Indians got out their message demanding that the federal government respect old treaties.
“It was a time when the world stood still,” said Bellecourt. “It was important because it taught our people that they could stand up and demand their rights.”
In the immediate aftermath of that takeover, Means and Dennis Banks were charged with assault, larceny and conspiracy. Defended by the famous team of William Kunstler and Mark Lane, the charges against Means and Banks ultimately were thrown out by a federal judge for prosecutorial misconduct.
Polls showed that the Native American story told during the takeover was viewed sympathetically by the majority of Americans.
In ensuing years, more bloodshed changed some of those views.
Two FBI agents were killed in 1975, leading eventually to the arrest and conviction of Leonard Peltier. The murder of Annie Mae Aquash in 1975 — which many believe was tied to AIM leaders who believed Aquash was an FBI informant — also clouded the public views of AIM and such leaders as Means.
Out of all this, a legend grew around the handsome Means. Though he continued to lead protest movements across the U.S. and into Central and South America, he became best known as an actor, featured in such films as “The Last of the Mohicans” and “Natural Born Killers.”
He was involved in politics both on the reservation, where he tried and failed in bids to become tribal chair, and nationally where he made a bid to be the Libertarian’s candidate for president in 1987. He lost to Ron Paul.
Along the way, Means was shot by a would-be assassin, stabbed and imprisoned for a year for creating a riot.
In the process of all of this, the Los Angeles Times dubbed him as the most-known Indian “since Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull.”
Obituaries of Means that focus on bloodshed or Hollywood are merely sensationalist and superficial, Bellecourt believes.
The real legacy, he says, is American Indian children going to schools “where they learn our history and language and traditions as well as science and math.” The real legacy, he continued, are those community colleges where “our kids learn they can be engineers and scientists, not just hairdressers and bricklayers.”
By late in his life, Means obviously agreed with Bellecourt on what the legacy that came out of those confrontational times should be. At a 40th anniversary remembrance of the Wounded Knee takeover, Means grew disgusted with questions about the violence of those times.
“You people want to continue to put AIM in this certain pocket of illegality,” he said. “I can’t stand you people. I wish I was a little bit healthier and a little bit younger because I wouldn’t just talk.”
Bellecourt is the first to admit that problems of American Indians are far from solved. Drugs, poor health, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Native gangs all remain huge problems, he says.
But because of AIM and people such as Means, there’s hope, he believes.
“There are more and more warriors for the cause,” Bellecourt says, and today’s warriors are learning both traditional ways and high-tech skills.