Washington Post Magazine: Ways and Means
Monday, June 30, 2008; 12:00 PM
Controversial American Indian activist Russell Means came to Washington to declare his people's independence from the United States. But does his campaign for a sovereign Lakota nation serve his tribe or himself?
Donahue is a writer based in Portland, Ore.
A transcript follows.
Bill Donahue: Hello. I'm Bill Donahue, and I wrote the story on Russell Means for yesterday's Washington Post Magazine. I look forward to talking with you.
Porcupine, Republic Of Lakotah: Do you believe that the Lakotah People have a right to their complete and unfettered Sovereignty?
Bill Donahue: I believe that they have a right to sovereignity. I'm hesitant to sign on to "unfettered," though. What do you mean by unfettered?
Newport News, Va.: I have been and continue to be confounded by Russell Means politics in light of his many Hollywood performances. The article explains this by making reference to Sitting Bull's Wild West show appearances, but was this the explanation that Means gave or did it originate with the author? If the later did Means convey any sense of his appreciation of this (alleged) incongruity?
Bill Donahue: I was the one who made the link between Means and the Wild West shows. I have received one question from Porcupine, SD--possibly from Russell himself. If he'd like to answer this question, I encourage him to do so.
Yankton, S.D.: I have a different picture of Theodora Means (Russ' mother) than the "physically abusive Lakota woman" of the article. My picture of Theo is of a woman deeply resenting the treatment Russ got from a priest during the occupation of Wounded Knee. When she told me the story years later the pain was still in her voice. I took a picture of her surrounded by her four boys. It may be the only time they were photographed together in one spot as adults.
Bill Donahue: Thank you for painting a fuller portrait of Russell's mother. I only mentioned her abusiveness to suggest the tumultuousness of Russell's past. I hope that I did not imply that she was nothing but abusive.
Fairfax, Va.: Mr. Donahue -- I think you gave an honest portrayal of Russell Means, and I found myself liking the guy despite his flaws; the part about how he hasn't earned his fourth name really resonated. I have to imagine not many readers are going to have much sympathy for him, though, and I am fairly certain he is going to see it as he said, "a hatchet job." I doubt you think too much about reader perspectives, but was it difficult to be objective about Means as you wrote?
Bill Donahue: Kind of difficult because he is so large a character--so famous and so forceful--that I felt a bit daunted. But all the while I recognized he was complex, neither black nor white. So it wasn't that difficult to dwell on the shades of gray, rather than write a hagiography or a hatchet job.
Goleta, Calif.: I don't really see this article covering the legal aspects of whether Russell Means is right. Aside from responding to Means' personal sense of style, is his reservation plus some surrounding land legally a separate nation under the Treaty of 1868? Or are we saying that he totally made up this idea from scratch.
Bill Donahue: He didn't make up this idea from scratch. In the treaty of 1868, the US gov't did cede the land that Russell is designating as "The Republic of Lakotah" to the Indians. Then they took it away from them--a pretty basic theft. No one ever did say that the land territory constituted an independent nation, though.
Minneapolis, Minn.: Of all the leaders in Indian Country today why the focus on Russell Means?
Bill Donahue: I'm not disputing your question all. But I am wondering what other leaders you think the media ought to focus on.
Miami, Fla.: Did Mr. Means offer any comments or opinions about the finished story?
Bill Donahue: not yet.
Eugene, Ore.: A comment:
I just read your article on Russell Means in the Washington Post.
What a great job. I doubled over laughing at times. You found the perfect spirit, or core of Indian people. You did not do a 'hatchet job' at all.
I am an Oregon artist (white) and paint Native Americans. Since I work with full blood models, I have had a first hand opportunity to hear their history, culture and tradition. It is truly beautiful and we should learn from it.
Mr. Means is not a bad person, he is heartbroken.
Bill Donahue: He's been through a lot of hardship, and he's an intense guy, and often quite angry. But I don't think he's heartbroken. I think he still has a lot of fight left in him, and a good sense of humor.
Alexandria, Va.: With so many American Indians living and working in Washington D.C. on issues of great importance to their tribes and Indian Country in general, I am wondering why you chose to highlight Mr. Means, who is clearly trying to just gain more attention for himself.
Bill Donahue: In part, because many people in Indian Country are against him. He's controversial and therefore interesting. And his pleas for publicity, while transparent, lead to the central question that everyone always asks about Means: Is he for real or is he just an act? I don't think we'll ever get to the bottom of that question. Which is why it's an interesting question.
Capitol Hill, D.C.: The territory described in your article is the current home of four other Indian tribes: the Standing Rock Sioux, Cheyenne River Sioux, Rosebud Sioux, and Lower Brule Sioux. Not only were they left off the map that accompanied your article, but I didn't see any comment from them either. Have you talked to the leaders or citizens of these tribes to see what their take is on Means' quest for independence?
Bill Donahue: I can't vouch for the map, which was made by an illustrator, not me. I did not talk directly to reps from the tribes you mentioned, but I did seek interviews with Pine Ridge tribal council members, all of whom declined to be interviewed. And in my conversations with many journalists in the area, I learned that all tribal governments were dubious of Means' scheme and disinclined to comment.
Louisa, Va.: Dennis Banks was a "co-leader" of AIM and arguably more charismatic than Russell Means. What has happened to him?
Bill Donahue: He is now , at age 78, roughly, leading the "Longest Walk II," a cross-country march to bring attention to Indian issues. I made repeated attempts to reach him for this story. Neither he nor anyone else with AIM returned my calls.
Unsettling: That's how I found your piece. Not simply because of Russell Means' story but because, a few days before the US celebration of its independence from Britain, it underlines the point that was made in the article, that many Native Americans are and have become through centuries of genocide and control by others, a cultural construct of European Americans. I say this as an American of Indian descent, whose identity here is shaped by my "foreignness" even though I was born here. India as it's understood in the West is through the prism of British Colonialism, a narrow and grossly biased prism. Our views of Native Americans are likewise biased. I'm glad you spoke with others about Means, but has your work caused you to question your possible biases?
Bill Donahue: I don't really believe in "objectivity." All writers write from a certain vantage point--no one can deny that. Still, I don't agree with the Indian writer Sherman Alexie. In attacking Ian Frazier's book, "On the Rez," written in about 2001, he said, basically, that only Indians should be allowed to write about Indians. I think that anyone should be allowed to write about anybody. If the writing is done earnestly, with some attempt to understand, and with some acknowledgement that every writer starts with a bias, it's a valid enterprise, even though it may be that white Americans are never going to truly understand the Indian experience.
Rockville: How does Mr. Means feel about using Indian terms for sports teams or for example the Washington Redskins, KC Chiefs, Florida Seminoles etc.
Bill Donahue: In part because he was a standout athlete back in his salad days, he is outraged by this practice. He proudly told me that, in the late 1960s, while living in Cleveland, he put a curse on the local baseball team, the Indians. "They haven't won a World Series since," he gloated.
Helena, Mont.: Well, the Kurds want their land independent from Iraq, Iran, and Turkey; the Slovaks split off from the Czechs; the old Yugoslavia split into Croatia, Bosnia-Herzogovina, Serbia and some others. We tried to Europeanize the Native Americans for many years and never really came to understand their history or their culture, so I think this "Republic of Lakotah" is a reaction to all of our failures.
Bill Donahue: Or maybe you could just say that they never wanted to be Europeanized... and are now making that point explicit.
Washington D.C.: I thought it was a good article because it brought attention to the issue. I commend Russell Means' warrior spirit and hope he continues to fight and offer him my prayers and support. Does he have a website or facebook page? I think he might find some other non-native supporters out there who might be interested in boarding his ark.
Bill Donahue: Russellmeans.com
Germantown, Md.: Russell Means does not speak for the majority of us American Indians/Alaska Natives. All federally recognized tribes are sovereign Nations, so for him to pass himself off as a speaker for Tribes, especially for the Lakota Sioux Nation, does us more damage than good. I do agree all is not well with the federal government promise to provide health, education and welfare to Tribes, but unless you agree with Mr. Means' methods of keeping these issues in the forefront you are an apple or sell out!
Bill Donahue: well, I guess he would say that the tribes' sovereignity is limited and at the discretion at the Department of the Interior.
Pendleton, Oregon: A comment. It is clear that by himself Russell Means on a quixotic, almost demented trip to Washington, D.C., wouldn't receive such a fine story. But he still does have the power to bring a serious reporter to the Pine Ridge reservation, which needs all the sunlight it can get. Americans need to see that situation, see what went wrong. Unfortunately, it is difficult to see what will change all that.
But a seriously wrong journalistic note was struck at the very end of the story when Means visits the Porcupine Health Clinic, which he helped start up. Donahue writes: "When we came out of the conference room, there were a few people sitting in the waiting area -- a young mother with her baby, an old man, an obese young woman in shorts and a dirty sweatshirt. Means began moving around the room. Without saying a word, he presumed to shake the hand of everyone present. Was he planting campaign seeds, despite himself, or was he simply exercising a little noblesse oblige? It was unclear, but the moment seemed expertly scripted."
This coda to the long article is dead wrong.
I have lived on Oregon's Umatilla Indian Reservation for over a decade. In that situation, Russell Means was simply doing what ALL western tribal members, elders, and leaders do in such public situations: all will walk from person to person with solemn handshakes and personal greetings. I have personally witnessed this Indian tradition of public courtesy in dozens and dozens of meetings, longhouses, ceremonies, funerals, and dances. It is what Indians do.
Had Means not done this act - exactly as Donahue described it - he would have been held in contempt by all the Indians present.
It is too bad that an otherwise useful story didn't didn't end correctly on the one note of authentic Indianness we see in a long story about a washed-up Russell Means.
Bill Donahue: Thanks for your praise. I regret that I did not mention the Indian authenticity of the gesture. Still, had you been there, you might have noted that, given the context, the gesture was optional and carried the clear implication that Means was the reigning presence in the room. No one else moved to shake the hands of his/her neighbors and their failure to do so did not come off as rude.
Re Unsettling: Please understand, I'm not accusing you of anything, nor am I saying you shouldn't write about Native Americans. For all I know/knew you may be Native American. I was asking about biases that all of us to some degree may have and whether the research for this story caused you to reassess any that you might be carrying.
Bill Donahue: No need for an apology. I appreciated your question, actually. (And just to clarify, I am, as Means apprehended, of Irish-Scottish descent, with no Native American blood.) I guess that, in writing the story, I learned how far away my experience is from that of Native Americans. The uprooting of their culture, the broken promises made to them, the disillusionment--these are all things I can understand rationally, from a distance, but I probably will not know them experientially.
Munich, Germany: Your article on Russell Means reminded me of Chief Dan George, an Native American actor who starred in "Little Big Man", and who like Means, was a spokesman for native American rights. Chief Dan George once wrote, "Can we talk of integration until there is an integration of hearts and minds? Unless you have this, you only have a physical presence, and the walls between us are as high as the mountain range".
Your description of the public housing community, Evergreen, reminds me that there is a huge amount of squalor and despondency amongst Native Indians. Russell Means is perhaps using his brash notoriety to bring this to people's attention, but are there less controversial people out there who are trying to integrate Native Americans into North American life?
Bill Donahue: I like your question, and it seems that there are others present on this forum who may be able to answer it better than I can. I encourage them to do so....
Silver Spring, Md.: Interesting article in yesterday's Washington Post Magazine on Russell Means. I first heard of him in the early 1970's when living in Sioux Falls, S.D. where I went to college and then worked for a few years.
On my last day there in early May of 1974, I was getting my car serviced for my next day departure and members of A.I.M. were rioting across the street at the Courthouse where Means had just been convicted.
He had promised that riots would destroy the city and some actually believed him. He was a "big bag of air" back then and apparently still is... 34 years later!
As for A.I.M. they were a bad joke... and we referred to them as A**holes In Moccasins.
Bill Donahue: Well, I can't imagine that it would have been much to be on the receiving end of Russell Means' rage, circa 1974. Still, I don't think that AIM can reduced to "a-holes in mocassins." Your comment reminds of a TV newscast I saw once, after the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle. The reporter was standing next to a wall graffitied with an anarchist symbol, and she was saying, "Look, these hooligans vandalized this building for no reason--no reason." Well, the sign on the wall made it pretty clear that they did it for a reason, even if the reporter didn't take kindly to their reasoning...
Ocala, Fla.: While Mr. Means has a just cause, perhaps, his association with Vine Deloria is embarrassing in many ways. Deloria tends to credit anything Indian as superior to anything not Indian. For instance, based on Indian lore, he believes that dinosaurs were extant as recently as a century ago, that evolution is discredited, and that, basically, all modern science is wrong.
Bill Donahue: I guess you could say the same about Means' alliance with Qaddafi, the Moonies, and Larry Flynt. I believe in evolution myself, but then again, in comparison to Russell Means, I have a pretty boring, quotidian set of beliefs.
Washington, D.C.: To help bolster his standing in the non-Indian community, Means has bragged that he is a former fancy dance champion and rodeo star.
What fancy dance championship has he won and in which event and location did he win any rodeo championships?
Bill Donahue: Unfortunately, I cannot tell you right now, off the top of my head. But he dwells on his fancy dance past in his autobiography.
Washington D.C.: I've been an admirer of Russell Means since reading his autobiography ten years ago. I laughed and cried while reading "Where White Men Fear to Tread" and so must say I was a little disappointed in your choice of quotes from the book. It is filled with his search for spirituality, for guidance,for meaning and clarity. Other than this, a terrific article, thank you.
Bill Donahue: Many thanks for your praise. I know that Russell wrote the book after undergoing therapy and that he claimed to have made a major shift toward redemption. But in my time with him, he still seemed pretty set in his old, angry ways. That's probably why I didn't quote the passages you mention.
Washington, D.C.: Mr. Donahue,
Your article on Russell Means is interesting, thought not that illuminating. You've done a good job of showing that Means is only interested in helping Means, but I think you're trafficking in the same commodity that Gerald Vizenor decries as the "invented Indian."
It's telling that you chose to profile the former movie star with a big personality and an outlandish cause. Why did you decide on Means? Real leaders in Indian Country are working to ameliorate the poor living conditions and short life expectancies that take a back seat to Means' quixotic embassy tour in your article. Pieces like this give Americans another outlet to worship the noble but fallen Indian working to regain his old lifeways; Indian Country's not that way at all.
Bill Donahue: I hear your complaint. I'm wondering, though: Who would be a better person to focus on? I honestly would like to hear your suggestions. Feel free to contact me through my website: billdonahue.net
Ellsworth, Wisc.: What did you hope to gain by publishing this article? It seems to me that besides your thinking that this was an "interesting piece" to write about, what end goal did you have in mind? It is obvious from the lack of comments from tribes that this is not something they are pursuing, it is something that governments aren't interested in pursuing, and is something that American citizens don't like the idea of even sovereignty. Please inform us on what your intent as a journalist was to provide useful information to us and, hopefully, make a change for the better.
Bill Donahue: I was drawn to Means because he is an interesting, complex character on an interesting mission. Telling his story, I reckoned, would afford a chance to medidate on the larger Indian story. I recognize that there are myriad other Indian stories worthy of being told. I was not explicitly trying to "gain" anything by telling Means' story. I don't consider myself an advocacy journalist.
Washington, D.C.: Have you read Joseph Trimbach's recently published book, "AIM The American Indian Mafia" on the events at Wounded Knee? If so several items in your article presented as facts would be corrected if not removed. The plight of the American Indian is very real, but Russell Means is not the person they should rally behind.
Bill Donahue: I have not read the book. Who should they rally behind instead?
Santa Barbara, Calif.: Why did you casually call him an aspiring assassin? That could really be interpreted in the wrong way.
Bill Donahue: he personally told me that he wanted to be an "assassin." That was his word and, as I related in the story, he made a list of people he wanted to assassinate.
Bill Donahue: Thanks for your questions. I've enjoyed talking with you all.
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