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Russell Means in Memoriam: Mitaku Oyasin October 25, 2012

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Gender, Political Philosophy, Teaching.
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Many of my students have heard me talk about Russell Means over the years. A complex man in complicated times, believing he saw a simpler solution to the culture war he believed still existed between the American Indian communities and mainstream America. A man who had his own vision, and sometimes version, of history. Russell Means passed away October 22 from throat cancer, and the spectrum of Americans in the public eye has lost a unique dimension.

So who was Russell Means? An Oglala Sioux Indian, with many different facets to his life. The American Indian activist Means was the chief organizer of the second Wounded Knee uprising in 1973, and was involved in various American Indian movements. His activist accomplishments are outlined here. The politician Russell Means ran as the vice presidential candidate to Larry Flynt’s presidential candidacy in 1983, and ran against Ron Paul as the Libertarian presidential candidate in 1987 (Paul won). The actor Russell Means was a significant Hollywood presence, playing the iconic character Chingachgook in the 1992 movie The Last of the Mohicans—and provided a special ambiance to the 2004 season of the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm. His film credits are numerous, as you can see on the Wikipedia site. The businessman Russell Means ran a website where he told his story, and the story of the plight of the American Indian, and sold CDs, art and t-shirts in support of the American Indian cause. And (this is where my connection to him comes in) the lecturer Russell Means would travel around the United States to college campuses, educating new generations of students to what became his own version of American Indian history. He was a speaker at San Diego Mesa College in the 1990s, and that was where I met him. (And I should also mention: the private citizen Russell Means had domestic problems, and was arrested for assault and battery toward his father-in-law back on the Navajo reservation. And he had more severe legal problems earlier on when he was indicted for murder on a reservation, but acquitted.)  And his image is familiar to Andy Warhol fans–Warhol painted Means 18 times.

But back to the lecturer persona. I wish I could tell you exactly when Means visited the Mesa College campus, but I don’t see any references to his visit on the Mesa College website, and all I remember is that it was in the early years when I was first teaching Philosophy of Women; so: the late 1990s. He was scheduled to give a talk in the room behind the cafeteria, and I decided to bring one of my classes to the talk. The room was packed with people, sitting on chairs, standing, sitting on the floor, and Means, 6 ft tall or more, hair in braids, was a very imposing sight, and a gifted speaker. Well, he kept on talking past the class period, and I ran back to the classroom and collected the students waiting for my next class, and brought them down to the cafeteria; Means was still talking. And he kept on talking for a good four hours, about what it is like to be an American Indian, about his battles and his careers, about American Indian traditions, about discrimination and near-genocide, and about the term “Indian” itself. He shocked most of us PC college people by declaring that he didn’t mind being called an Indian, and that the proper term to use was either “American Indian” or the tribal name such as Oglala Sioux Indian, but never Native American. He said it was a term invented by Washington for funding/political purposes (which is why I, to this day—and my students and readers of my books can verify that—always use the term American Indian). And the term Indian itself? Wikipedia (below) got his argument right, but whether it is also historically correct is something I can’t determine (and I have yet to find a historian who agrees with Means): 

Since the late 20th century, there has been a debate in the United States over the appropriate term for the indigenous peoples of North America. Some want to be called Native American; others prefer American Indian. Means said that he preferred “American Indian”, arguing that it derives not from explorers’ confusion of the people with those of India, but from the Italian expression in Dio, meaning “in God”.[17][18] In addition, Means noted that since treaties and other legal documents in relation to the United States government use “Indian”, continuing use of the term could help today’s American Indian people forestall any attempts by others to use legal loopholes in the struggle over land and treaty rights.

In addition he talked about what I referred to above as a culture war between the mainstream Euro-American tradition and the American Indian peoples. He said, the Euro-Americans are a culture of swords and violent domination, while the American Indians are a sharing culture, a culture of partnerships symbolized by a bowl or drinking cup. At that point my ears perked up, because I had just been reading Riane Eisler’s book The Chalice and the Blade, about the ancient gynocentric (female-oriented) partnership cultures of Old Europe symbolized by the chalice, vs the invading patriarchal dominator cultures worshipping the “lethal Blade.” So I asked Means if there was a connection, and he said, “Yes, there is this woman who wrote a book about the same phenomenon in Europe, and it fits the situation in this country between the indigenous peoples and the invaders. ” From from a gender-philosophical standpoint I found it fascinating that he would adopt the Eisler theory as an explanatory model for the American Indian culture (even if Eisler is also considered an activist and in no way a historian).  I tend to be skeptical of such arguments which tend to simplify very complex matters, and fan an ongoing (and possibly outdated) tension and enmity, and I see no reason to find Eisler’s theory more historically accurate because of the fact that Means liked it, but I found the confluence of research, activism and tradition to be intriguing.  If you want to experience him talking about the topic of partnership cultures and gynocentric (matriarchal) cultures, watch this YouTube clip.

Means ended his 4-hour lecture at Mesa by teaching his audience the end of every Oglala and Lakota prayer: two words that embrace all of creation, everywhere and for all time: Mitaku Oyasin: We are all related. And while much of his lecture was, to a scholar such as myself, a creative journey into personal interpretations rather than facts (and sometimes interpretations that were hard to swallow), his passionate sincerity rang true, and has stayed with me as a cherished memory. And his prayer still comes to mind sometimes when I’m looking for connections and common ground rather than analytical differences. So: Thanks for the lessons, Russell, and Mitaku Oyasin…

Cross-posted at Rosenstand’s Alternative Voice blog for Rosenstand’s Mesa students.

Comments»

1. Paul Moloney - October 26, 2012

Thanks for the info on Russell! In the later ’90’s I wrote a story that concerned early California history, I had a character called “Indian Boy”. I used that title without hesitation, but after writing the story, I was bothered by the term “Indian”. I didn’t want to be insulting, so I changed it to another term. I still wasn’t satisfied though. I thought about consulting, I guess now, a so-called “Native American”. I never had the opportunity and went back to writing philosophy. I know this much, though, if “Tom Sawyer” were rewritten it would lose its literary value.


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