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Tucson Weekly Russell Means Business

From Indian activist to Hollywood celeb.

By Mari Wadsworth

Where White Men Fear to Tread: The Autobiography of Russell Means, edited by Marvin J. Wolf (St. Martin's Press). Cloth/Paper, $26.95/$16.95.

LOVE HIM OR hate him, you can't ignore him; and that's no doubt just the way Russell Means likes it

DECEMBER 15, 1997:  His early years as an accountant-turned-activist won him notoriety if not always praise, most notably for co-leading a 71-day armed siege in 1973, on the sacred grounds of Wounded Knee, on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation.

What started as a stand-off over a land-use treaty involving nearly one-eighth of the reservation's mineral-rich lands escalated into a violent skirmish with the feds with tragic consequences--two Lakota deaths and the paralysis of one federal agent.

"Things could not continue as they were," he writes of the events leading to Wounded Knee. "If we didn't stand up now for our treaty, we would never be able to do so. Our people were ready to die, if necessary, to end the abuse."

There's no question that Means is a remarkable man; one who's lived a life like few others in this century. Though at first glance it may seem strange company, he's like Bob Marley, Malcom X and Ceasar Chavez--the rare, charismatic leader who manages to bring the long-standing plight of a marginalized group into mainstream consciousness by being media savvy, militant, and genuinely concerned for the social justice of his people.

Seemingly destined for immortality like Marley, feared like Malcom, and credited for a selfless social activism like Chavez's, Means is no easy personality to summarize. Egomaniac? Visionary? A Chosen One? He'd probably tell you to call him whatever you want, just as long as you don't get in his way. And that would be advice well-heeded: He's been shot, stabbed, incarcerated, and tried on 13 occasions, once for murder.

In fact he's been called "one of the angriest, toughest American Indian activists of our times," and "the most famous American Indian since Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse," the latter by the L.A. Times. His indomitable, handsome mug seems to have become a modern archetype of The American Indian, plastered as it's been on movie screens and TV commercials for the past decade. Last year, he even crossed-over to the animated kingdom as the voice (and apparent model) for Chief Powhatan in Disney's Pocahontas.

And then there are those controversial alliances with the likes of Louis Farrakhan and the Rev. Sun Myung Moon...

Hollywood was made for Means, who cut his teeth in the spotlight by urinating on George Washington's Mount Rushmore head; being the vice-presidential running mate of Hustler publisher Larry Flynt; plaintiff against the Cleveland Indians baseball team for "insulting his heritage" with its red-faced, tomahawk-wielding mascot; and stopping a Columbus Day parade in protest of the Italian explorer he's not alone in considering a "genocidal heathen." These are just the dramatic highlights.

One can almost hear some white-bread Hollywood producer leaning back in his leather chair, grinning, "Means, baby, where've you been all my life?"

One thing's sure: Hollywood's getting as good as it gives where its new darling is concerned. Asked to read for the title role in Last of the Mohicans, Means turned heel and went home after the first-class ticket he demanded was downgraded by the studio to coach class. Don't let that noble, windswept countenance fool you: Means has wit and attitude to spare, and at this point in his life he's getting the last laugh, often with loaded one-liners on his exploits like, "It's all tied up in white tape."

This is the kind of action and language you can expect from Where White Men Fear to Tread: The Autobiography of Russell Means, edited by Marvin J. Wolf. In addition to a detailed chronology of his early years (1939 to 1964) on the Pine Ridge reservation, he offers a history of the Lakota people, myriad documented acts of bad faith and exploitation of treaty law between his U.S. and tribal governments, and welcome reflection on the young man he was from the older, wiser elder he's become. (At 57, he's the proud grandfather of 18.) For instance, he allows that much of that hot-blooded hellraising sprang not from courage or conviction, but low self-esteem. A more mellow Means, grateful to have lived to tell about it, at times offers inspired perspective for the young American Indians of all nations to whom his book is dedicated.

Critical readers do well to remain skeptical of any individual, however charismatic, who claims to be the voice of authority and authenticity for any population, let alone one as diverse as the native tribes of the Americas. But whatever conclusions one makes of Means' actions and intentions, his unremitting presence and undaunted outspokeness opened a dialogue that changed the course of American history. And it's a good read, to boot.

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