Libertarian History/Philosophy

Russell Means, R.I.P.


Sioux Indian rights activist, actor, and former seeker of the Libertarian Party's presidential nod in 1988, Russell Means, has died at age 72 of esophageal cancer. He had shunned Western medicine in treatment of the cancer.

This New York Times obituary is good on the basic facts of his career. Here is the heart of his public notoriety outside the libertarian world:

He rose to national attention as a leader of the American Indian Movement in 1970 by directing a band of Indian protesters who seized the Mayflower II ship replica at Plymouth, Mass., on Thanksgiving Day. The boisterous confrontation between Indians and costumed "Pilgrims" attracted network television coverage and made Mr. Means an overnight hero to dissident Indians and sympathetic whites.

Later, he orchestrated an Indian prayer vigil atop the federal monument of sculptured presidential heads at Mount Rushmore, S.D., to dramatize Lakota claims to Black Hills land. In 1972, he organized cross-country caravans converging on Washington to protest a century of broken treaties, and led an occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He also attacked the "Chief Wahoo" mascot symbol of the Cleveland Indians baseball team, a toothy Indian caricature that he called racist and demeaning. It is still used.

And in a 1973 protest covered by the national news media for months, he led hundreds of Indians and white sympathizers in an occupation of Wounded Knee, S.D., site of the 1890 massacre of some 350 Lakota men, women and children in the last major conflict of the American Indian wars. The protesters demanded strict federal adherence to old Indian treaties, and an end to what they called corrupt tribal governments.

In the ensuing 71-day standoff with federal agents, thousands of shots were fired, two Indians were killed and an agent was paralyzed. Mr. Means and his fellow protest leader Dennis Banks were charged with assault, larceny and conspiracy. But after a long federal trial in Minnesota in 1974, with the defense raising current and historic Indian grievances, the case was dismissed by a judge for prosecutorial misconduct.

Means made a very spirited fight against Ron Paul for the LP's bid in '88; Means was such an unusual character that Paul was shocked Means put up such a good fight and appealed to so many Libertarians. As I wrote in my recent book Ron Paul's Revolution: The Man and the Movement He Inspired:

Only in the LP would the four-term congressman have a long, hard fight against the a Native American armed rebel who had only evaded jail because of prosecutorial misconduct. "If you just put it down on paper and put Russell Means here and me here and what I've done, you'd think you shouldn't even have to campaign," Paul says. "You'd think I'd get a lot more credibility, but it was a lot tougher than it should have been."

…Means argued that he could bring in a huge swell of new activists from the political or cultural left, and that the color and drama of his life story—indeed, his very identity—would guarantee media attention that a mere politician running for office such as Ron Paul could not….

The LP in the mid-1980s was just staggering along, hemorrhaging money and members. Paul rode in as a potential savior, and groused in an interview with American Libertarian that he wasn't thrilled with the notion of having to debate Means. He hoped the LP had enough agreement that such wastes of energy could be avoided….

Means, for his part, tried to win the anti-authority hearts of LP members by stressing such selling points as having removed himself from the Social Security system, not having paid income taxes since 1971, and battling the state of South Dakota over whether as a tribe member on a reservation, he had to have a license plate or driver's license….

The LP had never seen such a tense, expensive fight over its hand. With Paul having raised a quarter of a million dollars just seeking the nomination, the politician ended up winning the bare majority needed for victory over the Indian rebel at the LP's convention by just three votes. The wisdom in the LP world was that Paul had won their minds—just barely—but not their hearts….

Means' tribal Indian radicalism that seemed to oppose modernity and sometimes even written language as much as the state seemed way too far-out to many libertarians. But as the above shows, it attracted many of them as well. The libertarian movement, and perhaps especially the Libertarian Party, has played far more in the general far reaches of American oppositionalism than the popular prejudice of "Republicans who want to smoke pot" would indicate. Means' general oppositionalism led him to share stages with Louis Farakkhan and meet with Moammar Qaddafi, neither of which endeared him to many libertarians–but which did to some.

Means admired and advocated the untamability of the truly independent, something that states with their desire to pin down and number and control and tax never much cared for. (Jesse Walker wrote in Reason on political scientist James C. Scott's writings about modern states' desire to smash and regularize and rationalize such independent spaces and peoples out of existence in the name of state efficiency.)

Means was interviewed for a cover story by Reason in Aug-Sept. 1986. An excerpt, speaking of Miskito Indians he had been hanging with in Nicaragua during the Contra v. Sandinista years:

Self-sufficient people who plant their own food, who don't depend on the monetary system, have a proud history, fish, harvest natural or wild crops, and hunt for a living are not a people who give up their land—for any reason. Understand? Self-sufficient people you don't mess with. Anywhere in the world. Everyone knows this.

In that same interview, Means said this about his attempt to run for presidency of the Ogala Sioux Nation (he was kept off the ballot because of his felony record):

My platform was to get rid of every federal agency and state agency on this reservation and we'll do everything on our own. And I mean overnight—there wasn't going to be any gradual transition.

That sort of rhetoric led the man who interviewed him for Reason, Larry Dodge, to help promote Means for the Libertarian candidacy in 1987 for the '88 race.

Means also discussed with Reason why he hung with "fringe" characters like Farakkhan and Qaddafi (and Larry Flynt):

I have hung around with many elements of the non-Indian fringe. From Farrakhan to Larry Flynt the pornographer. . .

Reason: To certain Libyans. . .

Means: To Qaddafi, to the World Peace Council, to a myriad amount of the fringe elements of contemporary industrial society. Now hanging around the fringes, as the American Indian Movement leader, I have been searching everywhere to find a friend for American Indian people. At first I thought it was the Christians in America. The liberal Christians. Then I found that not to be the case. Then I thought it was the black politicians. Then I found that not to be the case. We went to the peace movement. And we found that we were not welcome. Then we went to the white left. And more so than any other group, we were used by the leftists….

Because of my experience in the '70s, the conservatives were calling me a lackey for the Communists. In 1980, I realized that the leftists and Marxists of industrial society were more efficient racists. I then went to the fringe element because I felt that the conservatives didn't ever want me, because they had been saying that I was a lackey for the Communists. Of course, now I am considered a lackey for the CIA by the leftists….

In a 1989 interview with Liberty magazine, Means talked of his efforts in the always-alive, never-quite-thriving world of "libertarian zionism"—trying to create new zones of liberty in a world ruled entirely by governments. (I wrote about this topic in the context of Seasteading in Reason in 2009 and of the Free State Project in New Hampshire in 2004.) Means said:

What we were trying to do was to show people that it can be done. In 1974 I heard John Maw, a Seneca leader of the Iroquois Confederacy, say "if you want to be sovereign, act sovereign." That is all you have to do. If you want to be sovereign, act sovereign. Be an example. Freedom works. Create free institutions. When you are in a war, every front is necessary.

Think tanks are necessary, election campaigns for the President on down are necessary; everything in fighting for freedom is necessary, because we are surrounded. But most importantly, we have to create our own freedom institutions.

I have approached three libertarian think-tanks (and talked a bit with several more) about trying to get to a reservation and going to work: create a libertarian country here. The only place in America that you can almost immediately create a libertarian country is on an Indian reservation, because they have the sovereignty to do it; without an armed revolution, and without all this crap with elections. We could do it: I know the psychology of tribal officials, who are on the dole. We would sit down, in the think-tank faction, and figure out an approach, and do it!

But I can't get any interest! Every time I want to bring in some of these people,some Indians, they beg off. They have excuses. All I got was pamphlets. Pamphlets! This would have to be a full-scale project. It would be a lot of work, and it would not happen overnight, but we can succeed. Surely some libertarians must be interested.

Jacob Levy at Bleeding Heart Libertarian wonders what the libertarian movement would have been like if Means' more left-leaning approach rather than Paul had won the 1988 nomination. (My thoughts? Given how little effect any particular LP candidate has had on the larger movement, I think it would have been little different. And this wondering of Levy's elides how successful Paul's own non-pandering plumbline libertarianism has been in left outreach in this age of endless wars and crony capitalism. I wrote a Reason feature about this topic in the November 2012 issue, not yet online, and subscribe today!)

Means supported his old foe Ron Paul in the 2012 race for being the only constitutional candidate who didn't support presidential unilateral power to kill:

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  1. He was also into banning the sale of booze near Indian reservations. Booze that is that wasn’t from one of the stores he owned. He was a corrupt race hustler of the worst sort.

    1. I think that is an intellectually dishonest mischaracterization of him and eschews his impact on the larger Libertarian and libertarian movements in this country. Polarizing as he may have been from a personality perspective there is no denying he fought for freedom, in particular for the freedom of Native Americans. In most issues I have seen him speak out on he has consistently espoused libertarian ideals and held his own self-identified group accountable for failing socialistic policies.

      You are better than this John.

      1. I used to respect him until the White Clay thing. That just showed him to be a crook and phony.

    2. Evidence? Link?


        He filed suit and tried to get a Nebraska town near the Sioux Indian reservation banned from selling alcohol. But his hands were hardly clean

        1. After further reading of your posted links:
          The wikipedia article’s only references to Means come with no relevant sources. The first mention is that he is a target in the movie…ok. The second mention is to a rally held in Lincoln, he isn’t mentioned in the source document. Only Vernon Bellencourt is (and I believe Means and Bellencourt were on the outs at that point).

          Reading your second link, it is a bitter blogger (not saying there may not be facts there) that is not corroborated by any other evidence. To quote it:

          I suspect that somewhere Russell Means is lurking in the background

          The very admission on no facts in evidence.

          Add to this the evidence listed under press releases and statements made by Means and others at the time about the attempt to gain a liquor license to sell alcohol:

          Activists Russell Means, an Oglala from Porcupine and co-founder of the
          American Indian Movement, and Frank LaMere, a Winnebago from South Sioux
          City, Neb., plan to seek a license to sell beer in Whiteclay. They want to
          form a nonprofit corporation to open the liquor store and use the proceeds
          to build an alcohol rehabilitation center.

        2. So, I would like to thanks you. After reading all of this I am now MUCH more comfortable calling you out on the poor nature of your comment. It seems clean that in this situation he was attempting to deal with a problem a the most possible libertarian way.

          Please, if you read these lines differently then let me know but the evidence you presented does not support your assertion in the slightest.

          1. keyboard went haywire there it seems:
            thanks = thank
            clean = clear
            a = in

  2. I can’t put into words how this makes me feel, so I’ll use a photo.

    1. Wasn’t that dude actually Italian?

      Remember: only you can prevent redface.

      1. Yeah, he was a greasy Wop like you.

      2. Yeah, he was a greasy Wop like you.

        1. Now there’s a tiny tear dripping down my face, Ken. Me heap feel bad. We smokum peace pipe?

            1. HWY YA HEY YA HEY YA

  3. Don’t know much about him but he sounds like a very interesting dude. I’ve long thought that Indian Nations would be the best means to creating a libertarian sub-nation within the US borders. But then, if I were to try to make it happen, I’d look like another (1/16th Cherokee) white dude exploiting Native Americans. Glad to see a Native American who came to the same conclusions.

    1. My great-grandmother was full blooded Cherokee. Had the tribal papers that proved it. I guess that makes me 1/8 Cherokee. I wonder if I could use that to my benefit to set up a libertarian free state? Too bad it would have to be in Middlesboro, KY.

  4. I believe I voted for Ron Paul in 1988 over Russell, but I did get to hang with him, and subsequently correspond for a time. He was something else but I got the impression he was sincere in his libertarianism, just didn’t come to it via Rand or Hayek or other traditional paths. By 1992, he wasn’t interested in seeking the nomination but one could imagine the press he would have gotten appearing in full Oglala headdress. RIP Russell, a true warrior of
    “the people.”

    1. I always respected Russel Means for the fact that when he lost the 1988 nomination he didn’t take his ball and go home as a lot of LP members thought he would. He stayed active and helped Andre Marrou campaign as the VP candidate that year.

      A lot of people in the LP thought that Russel was a shameless self-promoter (he was) and an opportunist (he was that too) and that he had just latched onto the LP as another new thing to exploit for his own benefit. He turned out to be into it for the long haul a lot more that some others – like me – who burned out spectacularly.

      I met him once in the early nineties. He had amazing charisma and a presence that was simply overwhelming.

  5. I can’t get any interest! Every time I want to bring in some of these people,some Indians, they beg off. They have excuses. All I got was pamphlets. Pamphlets! This would have to be a full-scale project.

    That’s a shame. This would have been a (slightly) easier and more viable project than Seasteading or the Free State Project.

    1. I’ve always thought so. Completely cutting off the federal teat shouldn’t be as difficult as it has been for the tribes. However, clearing the corruption of the tribal councils would be very difficult. There are men who make a lot of money based upon their power and often dole out just enough to the people to keep themselves in charge.

      My wife’s tribe is still fighting a Hatfield/McCoy style fight that has prevented anyone but the core of the two major families from benefiting from the tribe’s resources.

  6. The lesson is that being more radical, not less, is what appeals to potential third-party voters. If only L. Neil Smith had been nominated once or twice, or if only Badnarik hadn’t watered down his pre-convention platform to match the LPs….

  7. Means made a very powerful speech at the 2000 LP convention. I think at the time he was again trying for the LP nomination; very soon after he lost to Harry Browne. I think that was when he made the decision to pursue the governorship of NM. I used to have that speech on video tape, and I wish I still had it. Sadly, C-SPAN archival coverage of LP conventions only goes back to 2004, or I would post the URL here. If anyone else knows of a place online where the footage can be found, I’d appreciate the link…

  8. http://www.libertarianinternat…..-education for a perspective on his work as an LIO Fellow…

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