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April 25, 1996

AIM's co-founder takes issue with some common images of Indians

Nineteenth century Plains Indians did not hunt buffalo the way Kevin Costner did in the movie "Dances With Wolves." They were not nomadic. They did not belong to a warrior society. And when they were forced onto reservations they adapted and became successful ranchers, so successful that the federal government had to create the farm subsidy program so that white ranchers could compete with them.

And as for the mountain men, they smelled so badly from not changing their clothes for months at a time that the Indians generally would not allow them into their villages and made their teenage sons trade with them as a test of manhood.

Those are among the corrected images of Indians and the West that Russell Means, co-founder of the American Indian Movement, addressed during an April 11 lecture here publicizing his autobiography, "Where White Men Fear to Tread." He also took exception to the term "Native American," calling it a federal government creation "used to identify all of the prisoners of the United States of America." Means said he takes offense at the term Native American because it is a generic term that lumps together people who belonged to 500 different nations before the arrival of Europeans in North America. "I do not allow any government to define who I am," he said. "I refuse to be trivialized into a generic human being." Although Means's appearance was co-sponsored by Pitt's University Library System, the School of Social Work, the history department, the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, the Honors College, California University of Pennsylvania, West Virginia University and the Carnegie Library, the activist did not hesitate to bite the hands that brought him to Pittsburgh.

Throughout the evening, he lashed out at archeologists, anthropologists and historians, referring to them as "arches," "anthros" and "hises." He accused them of perpetuating stereotypes about Indians, including the "big lie" that Native Americans migrated to North America across the Bering Strait from Siberia.

Means claimed that "every bit of scientific evidence refutes that theory." However, he never provided details, a course he followed on a few other occasions, as when he called Waco the white man's Wounded Knee, but then failed to elaborate.

While scholars would take issue with such lapses, they did not seem to trouble the audience and may have had as much to do with the stream-of-consciousness story telling style of Indians as anything else. Means freely switched topics throughout his talk, skipping from history to politics to the arts to family and his personal life.

Never, though, was he boring. Having spent most of his adult life in the spotlight, including the occupation of Wounded Knee, S. D., in 1973 and roles in such films as "Last of the Mohicans," "Natural Born Killers" and "Pocahontas," Means knows how to choose subjects and how to add drama to them. Among his first targets was the buffalo hunt in "Dances With Wolves." Calling the hunt in the movie "romanticized nonsense," Means pointed out that horses were among the most prized possessions of the Plains Indians. He said they did not ride what were their "BMWs and Mercedes willy-nilly" over a plains landscape full of holes and rocks and gullies. The Plains Indians followed the example of the coyote, according to Means. They would circle a buffalo until it tired, and then move in for the kill.

The description of Indian society as a warrior society drew fire from Means because Indian society was matriarchal and women are not prone to settling their disputes with violence, as in the white man's patriarchal society. He said mothers, unlike fathers, have empathy for each other and do not want their sons killing the sons of other mothers. "Maybe that's why there isn't an Indian language in this hemisphere that has the word 'war' or 'warrior' in it," he noted. "If you do not have the words, you do not have the consequences." Before the arrival of the white man, according to Means, most Indian disputes were settled by playing lacrosse or a form of soccer and on the plains by counting coup (touching an enemy and then fleeing).

"Our disagreements were usually settled with about as much danger as an NFL football game or a National Hockey League game," he said. "So, I apologize to you historians and you anthros and archies. But I am not a warrior and I do not come from a warrior society. And believe me, I am not nomadic, even though I live on American Airlines." When the Indians traveled back and forth across the plains, Means explained, they were doing nothing more than moving from their summer homes to their winter homes and vice versa. "When the white man moves from his summer home to his winter home, he is called rich. He isn't called nomadic." One of the lesser known facts of Plains Indian life that Means dealt with involved the success that many Indians found as ranchers after being forced onto reservations. The Indians succeeded as ranchers, according to Means, because they took care of the earth and did not rely upon money. Instead, they traded and looked out for each other.

His voice touched by the memory, Means recalled that the only cash his grandfather needed was enough money to buy strawberry soda pop for his grandchildren at the local store. Since the white ranchers depended upon money, he said, they could not compete with Indian ranchers, so the federal government had to start the farm subsidy program. The government also changed land policies to open up more Indian land to homesteaders, and then paid homesteaders to move west and even supplied them with tools and seeds.

Today, according to Means, the stereotypical image of Indians has them living on reservations collecting handouts from the federal government. However, he said, Indians living on less than 50 million acres of land contribute over $6 billion annually to the gross national product of the U.S., while only $2 billion per year is budgeted for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He did not cite a source for those figures.

Means's own ancestry reveals the history of the Indian in America since the turn of the century. His grandfather was a traditional who argued against allowing missionaries on the reservation because he believed they would destroy the spiritual structure of Indian life. His grandmother, though, became a Christian and even had her own church for a time.

Both Means's mother and father were sent to Indian boarding schools as youngsters to learn the white man's ways. They were not permitted to speak their own language at those schools and Means's father was beaten so many times for speaking Sioux that he lost the hearing in one ear. Later, he became an alcoholic and choked every time he tried to speak his own language.

Like his grandmother, his mother moved in the opposite direction. She was a strict disciplinarian who beat her children. Having accepted his mother's behavior as beyond her control, Means today credits her for giving him the strength to endure.

Mired in self-loathing, Means turned to alcohol and drugs to cope with his family life. He admits to having been a "lousy husband who ruined four families" until he entered a substance abuse program in the early 1990s. "Now," he said with a tear in his eye, "for the first time in my life, I can talk with my sons. It's great being clean."

–Mike Sajna

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