PINE RIDGE, S.D. -- As a young man, Russell Means picked up the gun and became a militant symbol of the American Indian Movement, but today, at age 63, he preaches that the ballot is more powerful than the bullet.
Nearly 30 years have passed since Means and 350 other heavily armed American Indians made a 71-day stand at Wounded Knee, occupying the site where as many as 300 Indian men, women and children were killed by the 7th Cavalry in 1890. Gun battles erupted during the takeover, staged to protest broken treaties and lost land. Two Indians were killed and a federal marshal seriously wounded.
Means followed a path of confrontation, including courthouse sit-ins, and in 1978 served a year in jail for his role in a riot at the Sioux Falls courthouse.
Time has not dulled his sharp tongue or his anger. Ask him about President Bush, and he'll say, "The guy has an IQ of 94."
Sen. Majority Leader Tom Daschle? "He's the worst part of (Bill) Clinton; he'll do anything."
Means' militancy has always been laced with irreverence. But the Russell Means of today is a political pragmatist, not the firebrand of yesterday.
He has become a Constitution-thumping libertarian who is campaigning to become the Oglala Sioux tribal president in an election scheduled for Tuesday. If elected, Means says, he will make sweeping changes in tribal government and challenge the legal underpinnings of federal Indian policy. He'll be attempting to seize by ballot the tribal government he has so long criticized from the outside.
American Indian voters were the decisive factor in the recent U.S. Senate race in South Dakota, where the Democrats mounted a registration drive on the reservations.
Sen. Tim Johnson, a Democrat, was losing to Republican John Thune by 700 votes, but he eked out a 528-vote victory after receiving a heavy vote from the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Means says Johnson's victory proves that Indians have the "swing power vote" in South Dakota, and they should not let the Democrats take them for granted. In the next election, he will urge Indians to vote Republican, he says. He gives two reasons: to dump Daschle and to gain respect in political circles.
"If we vote with the Republicans, we'll make a statement to South Dakota and the national Republican and Democratic parties that we are a force to be reckoned with, so when we go to Washington, the doors of power will be open just a bit wider than they are now," he explains.
Means says Daschle has opposed the tribes on key issues and does not deserve their support. For example, South Dakota's tribes view the Black Hills as sacred land taken from them in violation of a treaty. In 1985, Sen. Bill Bradley, a New Jersey Democrat, introduced the Sioux Nation Black Hills Act, legislation calling for the return of 1.3 million acres of federal land to the tribes. The tribes also would have received about $200 million in compensation.
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