Focus on Wounded Knee Clouds Russell Means' True Legacy, 'Brother' Says

Article excerpt

This was an especially difficult morning for Clyde Bellecourt.

First, Bellecourt learned that his "brother," Russell Means, had died, at the age of 72, at his ranch on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

One of the former leaders of the Minneapolis-based American Indian Movement, Means was surrounded by traditional Oglala Sioux spiritual leaders who told him Sunday night that "the spirit was coming to get him."

Means, Bellecourt says, was at peace, ready to move on.

But shortly after learning of Means' death, Bellecourt received a call from CBS, which added to his sense of loss.

"They just wanted me to say controversial things about Russell," Bellecourt said. "They kept asking about Wounded Knee. It was clear that when they think of Russell, they think of Indians with rifles at Wounded Knee."

Confrontation only small part of legacy

Confrontation, Bellecourt said, was important to the revival of American Indian pride, but it should only be a small part of the legacy of people such as Means.

"The whole story and the positive things that have happened don't get reported by the mainstream media," said the 75-year-old Bellecourt, who remains active in Indian affairs in Minneapolis.

Those positive things that grew out of the American Indian Movement?

In Bellecourt's view, they include a long list of things: Indian treaty rights, casinos on reservations, rejection of the whites' "organized religion" and a return to traditional spiritual ceremonies, colleges and junior colleges on reservations across the country, recognition of indigenous people around the globe by the United Nations.

There also are small but potent organizations, such as the American Indian Opportunities Center in Minneapolis. That organization, with roots in AIM, has health and dental clinics on Franklin Avenue and also trains American Indians to work in health fields.

The Legal Rights Center in south Minneapolis also has AIM roots, Bellecourt said. That organization has not only helped hold Indian families together but also has been a springboard for U.S. District Court Judge Michael Davis and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, who began their careers there and now have a deeper understanding of Indian issues than most in public life.

Before AIM, none of this existed for American Indians, Bellecourt said.

Means was not among the small group of AIM founders in 1968. At the time of the founding, Means was in Cleveland, running a government-sponsored program that was set up to help Indians adapt to urban life.

Bellecourt was the first AIM leader, elected after giving a fiery speech calling on a small group of Indians about the need for "confrontation politics. . . [to] stand up against organized religion, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and public education.''

AIM first began to make a ripple shortly after its formation, forming patrols on Franklin Avenue, to protect Indians from all forms of violence, including police brutality.

Within two years, Means had come aboard.

'A warrior in every sense of word'

"He was a real warrior in every sense of the word," Bellecourt said. "He was charismatic, not afraid to put his life on the line."

Means helped lead a number of confrontations that created national headlines, culminating with the 71-day takeover of Wounded Knee in 1973. …