The passing of Russell Means this week calls for sharing gifts he struggled to help us all remember and reclaim.
As human beings there are certain dignities which our existence demands. These dignities are as basic as the soil beneath our feet, the air we breathe, the water which nourishes us, the fires that warm and encourage us. It is in our acceptance of these fundamentals of our existence, and our rights to access them directly that any biological being can exist in dignity. Russell Means taught us this.
1980 was my walking year. It was my freshman year in college after a gap year roaming in the mountains of Alaska, British Columbia, the Yukon Territory, Wyoming and Oregon. Spring Quarter I wrote a learning contract off campus and joined The Walk for Survival – joining in Garberville CA and ending at Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action – next to the Naval Trident Submarine base at Bangor on Bainbridge Island in the Salish Sea of Washington State. We were hosting community meetings along the way to educate and talk about the US first strike nuclear systems and its alternatives.
One of the walk members was a former Japanese nuclear plant engineer, Suzuki, who had quit his job and became a Buddhist monk, drumming, chanting and walking for world peace. We had been camping outside of the now decommissioned Trojan Nuclear Power Plant along the Columbia River when Mt St Helens blew on May 18th. We relocated to Sacajawea Park in Longview before continuing. I could feel how dissociated our society was from its relations with the integrity of the earth and wanted to center with a knowing of the earth while participating with effective resistance to ongoing systems of violence and ecological destruction. When I asked Suzuki for his advice he told of The Long Walk in 1978.
Little known to most American citizens the practice of Native American Religions had been banned, made illegal, for a couple of generations. Leaders were jailed; children when sent to schools had their hair cut off and were whipped for speaking their languages or praying in the old ways. Elders stopped teaching the children because so many were dying from this abuse in the schools. One elder later told me about having several siblings older than her die in the government school. She decided in the 3rd grade that she must run away or she would die too. She fled, refusing to ever go back and survived. Today she is a national champion dancer going strong in her 70’s.
Suzuki told of how on the 1978 walk the people prayed, despite the law, walking across the entire Turtle Island, and that the earth prayed together with the people. Eagle and Hawk flew above the walkers the entire journey across the continent. The walk was an effective strategy and at its end in Washington DC Congress passed the Native American Religious Restoration Act ending the ban on Native American Religious Practice.
There was another walk happening and he suggested that I join the walk – The Longest Walk for Survival. The walk was initiated by Dennis Banks and Leighman Brightman of the American Indian Movement to confront the forced sterilization of Indian Women by the Indian Health Service, the impacts of Uranium Mining and the Nuclear Bomb Industrial Complex on Indian People, and other related issues. I joined the walk in Tulsa Oklahoma and continued on to Washington DC, the United Nations in New York and then returned prayer staffs to elders across the country in Oklahoma, New Mexico and California. This walk too had success. The practice of forced sterilization of Indian women (According to an internal report that the Carter administration shared 46% of child bearing aged Indian women had been sterilized by the government – the highest rates were on those reservations that had energy resources to be mined) was stopped within the year.
It was on the Longest Walk that I encountered Russell Means as one of the founders and leaders of the American Indian Movement. Milo Yellowhair, who later became Tribal President of the Oglala Lakota on Pine Ridge was a pipe carrier for the People who was on the walk. He shared how they had almost nothing to read on the rez but there were copies of the Congressional Record in the tribal offices. He would read them – that’s how he got his education in US government. At some point he mentioned that Russell and others had been subpoenaed by the House special committee on Un-American Activities (which in an attempt to reform its image renamed itself as the House Committee on Internal Security). One day I found a library which was a depository for the record and found the hearing testimony. This is what I want to share with you. The words of Russell Means changed how I see the world forever.
The American Indian Movement is a militant organization activating on behalf of Indian rights. They recognize the ongoing debasement of Indian peoples and stand up to fight for their dignity and the people’s dignity and future. At this point they had succeeded in capturing the Nation’s attention with some of their most radical acts – the taking of BIA offices in Washington DC and the standoff at Wounded Knee where the Ghost Dance was revived. A song from the ghost dance was gifted by Leonard Crow Dog to AIM at Wounded Knee and became the AIM song. It was a song we sang together on the Longest Walk whenever we needed strength of mind as a community. They saw the willful breaking of treaty law to continue the stealing of lands that they hold Indigenous Title to as something that needs reversal and were willing to use any means possible to restore land and legality of basic human rights. As part of the work they accepted funds from whoever might wish to support the work. The committee had subpoenaed Russell regarding donations that AIM had received from the communist party. They were investigating the organization as a revolutionary organization that had alliances with organizations whose intention was to destabilize or overthrow the US government.
Russell Means explained to the committee that no one who supported their work owned them or their agenda – that as Indian People their allegiance was with the Earth – in particular the Earth of their traditional homelands. No form of support or source of support could influence this.
Despite being forced by genocidal violence to cede the majority of lands they continue to hold Indigenous Title to, Indian people have kept human rights that most other human beings have forgotten. He then went on to explain Power. He confronted Congresses ideas that power might come from Money, from Government, from Weapons. Power comes directly from the Creation. Power comes from the primary elemental forces of the Creation. It is in the strength of our direct connections with Earth, Water, Air and Fire that we access true Power. These are the powers of living we access through the elements and directly with All our Relations – the 4 leggeds, the Winged Ones, the Fish the Plants and Trees, the Stones, the Winds, the Waters…. No government – no one – has a right to stand between a created being and their access to the essential powers of existence.
The Indian people have kept this basic existential right in treaty law. While being forced to cede lands they have preserved the right to hunt, to fish, to gather in their traditional places without the use of money. This has been legally upheld in the Pacific Northwest where it has been ceded that First Nations hold 50% of the Salmon Runs as Indigenous Title holders to the landscape. In many places the obstacles of private land ownership have created barriers that have inhibited the exercise of these rights.
As a young man traveling across National Borders made me acutely aware of how such borders hardly exist accept in the minds of humanity. No wild creature gives a second thought to crossing such a border. The acceptance of such borders is largely an artifact of the colonized mind. When one considers the basic biological needs of a human being, access to wholesome waters and foods, access to shelter, to healthcare through healing arts practitioners, to intact ecological environs, the space and time to nourish community and spirit with creativity, to work in the service of collective good. These are the essential rights of all created beings.
Today corporate and Nation State ownership systems have inserted themselves between the majority of human beings and their access to the source of the True Powers of life. These systems assault the basic dignity of existence. These systems are relics of a violent colonial enslavement process that most humans are the survivors of. These processes have consciously worked to reduce people’s memories of who they are and where their Power truly comes from. Indigenous traditions of bonding youth with the Earth and her Powers have been disrupted by mandatory education systems that disrupt these traditions. Adults have grown without access to their own dignity and Power – as dependents on the corporate / state systems that mediate access to earth, water, air, fire and the nourishments which arise out of the elementals. We need to free the earth from its enslavements and destructions in order to free ourselves. When we treat all of the creation as our brothers and sisters, when we have returned the landscape into a common trust, when we have worked out an equality of access to the sources of life and power – then we will live in a free country. Russell Means taught us this. Our First Nations, Deep Ecologists and Community Rights activists continue to teach us this. May we finish this work.