COLUMBIA — Russell Means has written books, recorded music and starred in movies, but he is best known as an American Indian activist.
Means was a leader in the American Indian Movement in the 1960s and 1970s, and in 1973, he led the movement’s occupation of Wounded Knee in South Dakota, where the group faced off against U.S. Marshals. He also participated in the Longest Walk in 1978, a protest against what was perceived as anti-Indian legislation by the U.S. government.
Tuesday night, Means spoke to a large crowd in Keller Auditorium at MU as part of the Chancellor’s Diversity Initiative. The lecture was sponsored by Four Front, an organization that represents minority groups on the MU campus.
Throughout the lecture, Means talked about his activism and the issues that arise because of the differences between indigenous people and European Americans.
“The very vast majority of indigenous people, and specifically the indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere, are matriarchal societies,” Means said.
Means argued that patriarchal societies, such as that in the United States, create conflict, whereas matriarchal societies create balance.
“I have yet to meet an indigenous language, especially in the Western Hemisphere, that has the word war in it,” he said. “If you don’t have the word you don’t have the concept.”
Another difference Means examined between the two cultures is communication. The Lakotah, Means’ tribe, comes from an oral tradition. Once a language becomes codified through writing, Means said, it starts to lose the meaning it once had. Means said linguists have found that indigenous Western languages are much more expressive than English.
“Anyone in here who speaks another language knows it is impossible to adequately interpret anything into English,” he said.
Means also touched upon the issues concerning his people and the actions they have taken recently.
In December 2007, Means and a group of Lakotah Sioux withdrew from treaties with the U.S. government. Means said the Lakotah is a sovereign nation with tax exemptions.
Means said the Lakotah broke free of the U.S. to protect themselves and their culture.
“My people face extinction,” he said.
Means said he is supporting “total immersion schools,” which would teach the Lakotah language and culture, for young Lakotah children. He said he hopes these schools can help save his language, since linguists have said it’s virtually dead because the average age of a speaker is 65.
Following Means’ speech, a question-and-answer session was held in which those in attendance asked him about a number of topics, including how he balanced his role as an activist while working with the movie industry. Means said that once he had a role, he’d fight to make changes in the script about generalizations and stereotypes, adding that he was successful in making changes to the film “Pocahontas,” but less so with “The Last of the Mohicans” because the director wouldn’t change the script.