Tag Archives: Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

In Memoriam – Russell Means, 1939 – 2012

Russell Means, a long-time activist for Native American rights, died this morning, October 22, at his ranch in Porcupine, South Dakota.  He was 72.  Means was born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota on November 10, 1939.  In 1942, his family moved to the San Francisco area.

Means is best known for his life-long efforts to bring attention to the plight of Indigenous Americans.  In 1970, he became the first national director of the American Indian Movement (AIM), a civil rights group founded in Minneapolis in 1968.  The United States had been mostly oblivious to the dire circumstances in which most Native Americans lived.  Even now, for example, Pine Ridge remains one of the most impoverished communities in the country.

Perhaps Means’ most controversial act was a 71-day standoff against federal agents at Wounded Knee on Pine Ridge.  Wounded Knee is the site of one of the worst massacres in Native American history: the slaughter of some 350 Sioux Indians on December 29, 1890.  As a protest against the deplorable living conditions of Pine Ridge’s residents, Means led a contingent of more than 200 fellow Indians to overthrow the reservation’s leadership.  The incident, which began on February 27, 1973, drew in the U.S. Marshals Service, the FBI and thousands of law enforcements officials.  Both sides were heavily armed and fired upon one another; killing 2 of the protestors and paralyzing one of the law enforcement agents.  After 71 days, Means and the other protestors surrendered.  The government charged them with assault and conspiracy, but dropped the indictments the following year.

Means continued his activism, marching on Washington, D.C., in 1978 to protest anti-Indian legislation, including the forced sterilization of Indian women.  Called the “Longest Walk,” Means led hundreds of people from San Francisco to Washington, the largest protest at the time.  Immediately afterwards, the House of Representatives passed a resolution stating that national policy was to protect the rights of Indians; to believe, express and exercise their traditional religions, including but not limited to access to sites; use and possession of sacred objects; and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.

Means highlighted the negativity associated with many sports team Indian mascots.  He joined a $9 million lawsuit against the Cleveland Indians baseball team for its “Chief Wahoo” mascot, calling it racist and derogatory.  In 1983, Cleveland settled out of court for a mere $35,000.  Means sought the Libertarian Party’s nomination for president in the 1988 presidential campaign, but lost to Rep. Ron Paul.  Means retired from AIM in 1988 and, four years later, began a new career as an actor when he was cast in “The Last of the Mohicans.”  He also appeared in “Natural Born Killers,” as the “Old Indian,” starred as “Sitting Bull” in the CBS mini-series “Buffalo Girls,” and provided voice talent for Disney’s animated film “Pocahontas.”

Means never gave up his mission to emphasize the struggles of Native Americans and even point out disparities in traditional American history.  In 1992, he stopped a scheduled Columbus Day parade in Denver, which had been meant to celebrate Columbus’ “discovery of America.”  Means and his constituents demanded the holiday be renamed “Indigenous Peoples Day.”

Like most people who lead a public life, Means became introspective in his later years.  “No one except Hollywood stars and very rich Texans wore Indian jewelry,” Means said about AIM.  And there were dozens, if not hundreds, of athletic teams “that in essence were insulting us, from grade schools to college.  That’s all changed.”  In his autobiography, “Where White Men Fear to Tread,” he admitted his fragilities – especially his battles with alcoholism, a common scourge among Native Americans – but also accentuated his successes.

In August 2011, Means announced that he had inoperable throat cancer and told the Associated Press that he would forgo standard medical treatment in favor of traditional Indian remedies.  Oglala Sioux spokeswoman Donna Saloman said wake services for Means will be held Wednesday on Pine Ridge and that his ashes will be spread in the Black Hills on Thursday.


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Tribe Wants Re-Examination of Reservation Deaths

In this May 21, 2012, photo, Oglala Sioux Vice-President Tom Poor Bear, in sunglasses and black vest, stands with American Indian Movement founder Dennis Banks, front row left, during a protest in Rapid City, SD.

You know the old saying: justice delayed is justice denied.  It’s not a quaintly poetic statement.  For many non-Whites in America, it’s a cold hard truth.  The federal government has spent a great deal of time in recent years prosecuting the murders and suspicious deaths of African-Americans, especially in the South during the civil rights era of the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Now, officials with the Oglala Sioux nation are asking the government to do the same with unresolved deaths and disappearances on their reservation, including one that dates back nearly 50 years.

Tribal officials presented the list of names to U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson during a meeting in Rapid City.  The list adds to the 28 deaths on or around the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota that Johnson agreed to re-examine nearly a month ago.  Pine Ridge is the poorest of the 3,143 counties in the U.S.

As with the first list – submitted in May – the majority of cases presented Wednesday are from the 1970’s, when the murder rate on the reservation was the worst in the nation, and tensions between the American Indian Movement and federal authorities was high.  But the new list broadens the scope of the requested investigations by several decades by including the 1964 death of Delbert T. Yellow Wolf, the oldest case presented for re-examination so far, and the 2010 death of Samantha One Horn.  One person on the list is missing but has not been declared dead.

Jennifer Baker, an attorney with the Colorado firm of Smith, Shelton Ragona & Salazar, which is working with the tribe, said Sioux leaders expanded the original list after uncovering new information.

Johnson said prosecutions on the Pine Ridge reservation increased last year, and that active cases will continue to take precedent over inactive cases.  Some of the old cases could be reviewed in as little as six to 12 months, he said, while others “could take a long time.”

The original list contained 28 cases that Oglala Sioux officials wanted reopened because they said the FBI didn’t investigate them sufficiently.  Eleven more cases resulted in prosecutions, but the tribe believed those prosecuted “were inadequately charged and/or received insufficient sentences.”

Baker acknowledged further prosecution was unlikely because the American judicial system doesn’t allow for suspects to be tried twice for the same crime.

The FBI typically investigates murders on reservations while the U.S. Attorney prosecutes the cases.

Tom Poor Bear, Oglala Sioux vice president, said the requests for new investigations stem from tribe members’ “lack of trust in the FBI.”

“I would like to see a special team of investigators other than the FBI come down and investigate these deaths,” he told the Associated Press in June.

The original list includes the deaths of Poor Bear’s brother, Wilson Black Elk, and cousin, Ron Hard Heart, whose bodies were found in 1999 on reservation land across the border from Whiteclay, Nebraska.

In 2000 the FBI issued a report detailing their investigations into the deaths of 57 people that occurred during the 1970’s.  The report said the bureau was right in closing the cases, even in situations where no one had been prosecuted for a death deemed unnatural.

I know there’s one unfortunate component to this quandary: many of the deaths and disappearances may have been Indian-on-Indian crimes.  It’s not like White people were sneaking onto the reservation under the cover of darkness and attacking innocent people.  But, regardless of the race or ethnicity of the victims and the assailants, violence is violence, and it must be prosecuted.

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