Have you ever wondered what your life would be like, what kind of person you would be, if the circumstances in which you were born were radically different?
Suppose you’re a white male who had been born black, or native American, or even a woman? Do you think that you would be a different sort of person? Would your personal morality, political beliefs, or your outlook on life be altered from what it is now?
I find it a stimulating exercise to play this little imaginary game on occasion because it forces you to place yourself outside your regular existence and walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Most often, I find myself doing this when reading history or biography. Would I have been a rebel or a tory? A supporter of the union or the south? Who would I have voted for in the election of 1900?
Of course, you are a prisoner of your own environment and life experiences, so it becomes an exercise in futility to truly and deeply understand what it might be like to be a black man in America, or, like Russell Means, a Native American activist who died today at the age of 72.
Russell C. Means, the charismatic Oglala Sioux who helped revive the warrior image of the American Indian in the 1970s with guerrilla-tactic protests that called attention to the nation’s history of injustices against its indigenous peoples, died on Monday at his ranch in Porcupine, S.D., on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was 72.
Strapping, ruggedly handsome in buckskins, with a scarred face, piercing dark eyes and raven braids that dangled to the waist, Mr. Means was, by his own account, a magnet for trouble — addicted to drugs and alcohol in his early years, and later arrested repeatedly in violent clashes with rivals and the law, once tried for abetting a murder, shot several times, stabbed once and imprisoned for a year for rioting.
He styled himself a throwback to ancestors who resisted the westward expansion of the American frontier and, with theatrical protests that brought national attention to poverty and discrimination suffered by his people, became arguably the nation’s best-known Indian since Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.
But critics, including many Native Americans, called him a tireless self-promoter who capitalized on his angry-rebel notoriety by running quixotic races for the presidency and the governorship of New Mexico, by acting in dozens of movies — notably in the title role of “The Last of the Mohicans” (1992) — and by writing and recording music commercially with Indian warrior and heritage themes.
I sometimes think that if I had been born black, or native American, I would have become a Communist. Or there are times, I imagine I would have resigned myself to my unequal station in life and simply gone about living — resentful and bitter at the hand dealt me by fate. Other times, I think I would have been a simmering, smoldering, in your face kind of activist. No Martin Luther King, I. You hit me, I hit you back twice as hard. There would have been rage — not only for any current slights but for past injustices that I think I would have experienced viscerally and not intellectually — as if the wounds were deep and recent.
My life experiences do not allow me to really imagine what it would have been like to be Russell Means. But I want to believe I understand where he is coming from. He was a very angry man. I doubt whether he hated injustice more than he hated the white man, which some might find understandable and thus excuse his racism as justified under the circumstances. He made no effort to rise above his own anger — something many racial activists are able to do successfully.
But Means’ activism served a large and worthy purpose by calling attention to the miserable plight of Native Americans. Recent years have seen tribes running casinos on their reservations (”like the buffalo returning” quipped one Native American leader) and while the gambling houses raise millions, still not enough is being done by tribal councils and the US government to lift the poorest of the poor out of abject poverty. In 2010, the poverty rate on reservations was 28.4 percent, compared with 22 percent among all American Indians (on and off reservations), and 15.3 percent among all Americans. This is an intolerable state of affairs and Means tried his utmost to call attention to it.
More than fighting poverty, Means fought for dignity. It seems trite and vainglorious to say that someone fought for an intangible like dignity, but in the case of Means and Native Americans, it is true. Certainly the helplessness born of the indignity of reservation life is a contributing factor to poverty. Did Means change that dynamic? He definitely inspired younger Native Americans to take up the cause and the pride of heritage he infused in them will pay dividends in years to come. The entire American Indian Movement — violent and racist as it was at times — has been a source of inspiration to the generations born since the 1960’s. When weighed on the scales of history, AIM will probably be considered an overall plus for instilling racial values in the young and attempting to preserve Native American culture.
Means was not one to practice cultural relativity. That wasn’t how he saw himself. He was a rabble rouser, a prick on the conscience of white Americans.
And considering the beastly treatment by the US government toward Native Americans, we needed a prick every now and again to be reminded of our sins, but more importantly, our responsibilities to the “First Americans.”