WOSTER: Others caught light from Means’ spotlightHe clearly loved the spotlight, but it is equally true that the spotlight loved him.
By: Terry Woster, The Daily Republic
I’d heard of Russell Means, of course, before the spring of 1972 when I first saw him speak at a public meeting in Billy Mills Hall in Pine Ridge.
By that time, the American public was becoming aware of Means, Dennis Banks, the Bellecourt brothers — Vernon and Clyde — and the American Indian Movement. There’d been the Alcatraz occupation, the Trail of Broken Treaties caravan and other protests during which Means, with his fiery style of speaking, and Banks, as earnest but in a quieter way, emerged as voices for Native American grievances.
But in the spring of 1972, after a Lakota man named Raymond Yellow Thunder was hazed and beaten and died some days later in a small Nebraska town across the border from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Means burst into the public consciousness in South Dakota in a big way.
His dark, braided hair, chiseled facial features and flashing eyes compelled the news cameras to focus on him time after time, no matter who shared the moment.
His strong voice carried his words like thunder claps across a crowded community hall or down the dusty street of a Wounded Knee Village.
Means had the gift for public speaking and the passion to back it up. He knew camera angles and sound bites and newspaper and television deadlines, and I suppose that made him a news hound. He was accused of that often by his detractors, especially during the 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973.
“If you guys (news reporters, and it wasn’t all guys, even back then) would just quit quoting Means, this demonstration would dry up in a day,” we’d hear during breakfast at the corner gas station in Martin or during supper at the bowling alley in Rushville.
Well, maybe, although when the Justice and Interior Department higher-ups put the clamps on Wounded Knee a few weeks into the occupation — recognizing that the policy of allowing reporters to pass through roadblocks and into the village was resulting in a daily dose of news from the AIM-led forces inside — the demonstration didn’t dry up.
It just went on and on, only this time with the FBI and BIA getting more of the quotes.
For all of the cries of grandstanding raised against Means, I always felt he was sincere in his words and committed to his cause.
Yes, he clearly loved the spotlight, but it is equally true that the spotlight loved him. When he was on screen in “The Last of the Mohicans,” it wasn’t easy to focus on the other actors.
He had stage presence.
I enjoyed covering the guy. He was great copy, as reporters and editors like to say. And he could be pretty down to earth. I recall talking with him after a semifinal basketball game at a state tournament in which his daughter’s Rapid City Central team held a big lead and lost to Pierre’s girls. The father of another Cobbler player fumed to us about the referees and how, if the calls had gone right, Central would have won. Means nodded, chewed a mouthful of popcorn and said, “And if we hadn’t missed about 20 free throws, we’d have won, too.”
A Lakota friend used to chastise me when I’d write about Means. My friend made the point that while Means was often portrayed as the voice of Native Americans, there were many others who could be legitimate voices for the people but who weren’t sought out by the reporters. There were elected tribal leaders, appointed and hired tribal officials, volunteers, all working quietly through the system for some of the same ends that Means sought. Reporters like me, my friend would say, overlooked the men and women who didn’t seek the spotlight — and whom the spotlight didn’t seek — but who busted their chops doing good things in a youth center or economic development office or housing program or dialysis clinic or school classroom.
My friend was right. Those people exist. They have for decades. Perhaps Means’ loud voice helps us see those other important people and encourages us to listen to their voices. That would be a legacy.