Russell Means is making his final journey on the Oglala Lakota territory beginning today. He was led by a riderless horse and the traditional Bigfoot Riders to his memorial service at Little Wound High School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
The death of the renowned Oglala Sioux leader has inspired his vast web of relations and friends—stretching back decades—to gather in the community of Kyle, South Dakota for the first of four traditional honoring ceremonies.
Remembered as an “Oglala Lakota patriot and freedom fighter,” according to an invitation from Means’ family, the former American Indian Movement (AIM) leader passed away early Monday morning at his ranch in Porcupine, South Dakota. He was 72.
The ceremony today was led by Sundance Chief Leonard Crow Dog, considered AIM’s spiritual leader, who told Indian Country Today Media Network that he’d known Means since 1959, and was with him at his passing.
“We were there with Chief Russell Means all the way,” Crow Dog said. “I was there, in the Oglala country, on his beautiful ranch. He’s a leader of all tribes—a spiritual leader—and a warrior. He was not originally a warrior, but all the injustice that happened to the American Indians and Canadian Indians—the system made him into a warrior just like Crazy Horse.”
The sweet smells of burning sage, sweetgrass and cedar—sacred medicines used for spiritual cleansing and healing—wafted through the gymnasium of the school as Means’ friends, family, and his wife, Pearl Means, prayed and shared stories from his life. The 12-hour ceremony began at 10 a.m., with community members lining up outside the school entrance, dampened by a gentle rain.
A horse riding with an empty saddle stands outside Little Wound High School in Kyle, South Dakota after traveling down the Big Foot Trail from Porcupine during an honoring service for American Indian Movement activist Russell Means on Wednesday, October 24. The horse saddle was left empty in memory of Means, who passed away on Monday. He was 72.“We have dignitaries coming in from all over—various tribal leaders from different nations, and friends,” Natalie Hand, Mean’s sister-in-law, told ICTMN before the ceremony. “We expect a large crowd—he made a huge, huge inroads into freedom for Native people around the world. That was his whole mission in life—to be free. One of his favorite quotes was, ‘The first thing about freedom is you’re free to be responsible.’ He encouraged young people to embrace that; he was a huge voice.”
Crow Dog reflected upon the truth of Means’ Lakota name, Oyate Wacinyapi, which means “worked for the people.”
“Yep, he worked for the people,” Crow Dog said. “And he didn’t write a manifesto proposal and get paid. He worked for the people as a spiritual leader of the Indian tribes, as a chief. [He] moved to protect the unborn, the elders and the relations. That’s what Russell Means—the beautiful leader that he is—emphasized to our tribes in the Western Hemisphere.”
Family and friends of Russell Means sing as they ride horses down the Big Foot Trail during the honoring service procession for Means in Kyle, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation on Wednesday, October 24. (AP Photo/Rapid City Journal, Aaron Rosenblatt)
Smudging, drumming and songs provided a communal ceremony for the leader’s supporters to pray for him. Crow Dog said Means’ soul will travel over four days to the spirit realm, known in Lakota tradition as Happy Hunting Grounds.
“It’s about keeping the soul and releasing the soul to Happy Hunting Grounds,” Crow Dog explained. “It’s all in a ceremonial mood, with cedar, sweetgrass, sage and an eagle wing. It’s all medicine—the way of life. Somebody will talk about his story. There’s a lot of tribes involved.”
Happy Hunting Grounds is an afterlife marked by forgiveness, in which one is reunited with the ancestors of one’s nation and family, Crow Dog said.
“Four days from now, he will enter [it] to see all the chiefs in his band, and all the families, all the relations, all the stillborn that went to Happy Hunting Grounds,” Crow Dog said. “He will see them in the Spirit World… Happy Hunting Grounds has never been disturbed by any corporations in the United States, Canada, South America or anywhere. Spiritually, we understand that power.”
Richard Milda, of Manderson, South Dakota, carries the Wounded Knee flag down the Big Foot Trail outside of Kyle during the honoring service on October 24. (AP Photo/Rapid City Journal, Aaron Rosenblatt)
Community members brought gifts of food for the honoring ceremony, as well as star quilts and blankets.
“Prayers were offered outside with a drum and honor songs, then he was escorted in with his wife, Pearl and all his children and grandchildren,” Hand said. “The ceremony will go on into the night. After that, his family and close relatives among the Oglalas will be carrying his ashes up to the Black Hills and scattering his ashes at Yellow Thunder Camp.”
Yellow Thunder Camp, located in Victoria Creek Canyon outside of Rapid City, was the site of a 1981 land reclamation and protest, with which Means was involved.
Today’s ceremony will be followed by three more honoring ceremonies. The second is planned at the Wounded Knee 1973 Occupation Memorial in February 2013, followed by a third at Wind Cave State Park, in South Dakota in June 2013 and the final one on Means’ birthday, on November 10, 2013. The location for the final honoring ceremony has not been determined yet.
Mourners gather to honor American Indian Movement activist Russell Means inside the gymnasium at Little Wound High School in Kyle, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation on Wednesday, October 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Rapid City Journal, Aaron Rosenblatt)