Ethics Hero Emeritus, Sort of: Russell Means (1940-2012)

“Fly swift, like an arrow.”

Clarence Darrow, the greatest of all American criminal defense lawyers, admired more than one criminal. One he especially admired was John Brown, the radical, violent and possibly insane abolitionist whose deadly 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry, Maryland was a terrorist act by any definition. Brown was hung for it, but he became a martyr for the anti-slavery movement, and his raid a rallying point for its cause. Darrow believed that some societal wrongs were so resistant to law and democracy that their grip could only be loosened by violence, and so he extolled men like Brown, whom he regularly eulogized in public with a fiery speech that concluded,

“The earth needs and will always need its Browns; these poor, sensitive, prophetic souls, feeling the suffering of the world, and taking its sorrows on their burdened backs.  It sorely needs the prophets who look far out into the dark, and through the long and painful vigils of the night, wait for the coming day.  They wait and watch, while slow and cold and halting, the morning dawns, the sun rises and waxes to the noon, and wanes to the twilight and another night comes on.  The radical of today is the conservative of tomorrow, and other martyrs take up the work through other nights, and the dumb and stupid world plants its weary feet upon the slippery sand, soaked by their blood, and the world moves on.”

I immediately thought of Darrow’s words about Brown* when I learned that Russell Means had died this week at the age of 72. Clarence Darrow would have loved Russell Means.

Movie buffs know Means as the father of Daniel Day Lewis’s romantic hero Hawkeye (“Stay alive! I will find you!”) and the title character in “The Last of the Mohicans.” But acting was just a lark for Means. What he cared about was the status of his people, Native Americans, in United States politics and culture, and his method of acting on his anger and indignation was to stage spectacular and sometimes violent protests. Violence was not something Russell Means avoided or feared: he was arrested repeatedly for provoking or engaging in it himself, and also was on the receiving end more than once. He was tried for abetting a murder, and imprisoned for a year for his role in a riot. He  was shot several times, and stabbed in prison.

Most of the violence occurred in connection with his passionate efforts to demand respect, reparations and power from the white society that had, in his view, stolen his people’s land and destroyed their culture and way of life. He told Reason Magazine in 1986,

“Self-sufficient people who plant their own  food, who don’t depend on the monetary system, have  a proud history, fish, harvest natural or wild  crops, and hunt for a living are not a people who give up their land—for any reason. Understand? Self-sufficient people you don’t mess with. Anywhere in the world. Everyone knows this.”

Just in case the U.S. public had forgotten, Means took it upon himself to remind them. He became a leader of the American Indian Movement, and  led a group of protesters to take over the replica of the Mayflower II ship docked at Plymouth, Massachusetts on Thanksgiving Day, 1970. His theatrical attack on the costumed “Pilgrims” at the tourist attraction was a media sensation, and immediately energized advocates for Native American rights, as well as making Means a celebrity. In another flamboyant protest, he held a tribal prayer vigil at Mount Rushmore to stake out Lakota claims to the Black Hills, and urinated on George Washington’s sculptured head to make his point.

In 1972, Means organized a march on Washington to protest the many broken treaties with Indian tribes that marginalized Native Americans and condemned them to poverty. He invaded the  Bureau of Indian Affairs, and camped out there with a band of protesters. His John Brown moment, however, came in a 1973 protest that lasted for 71 days and launched a media circus. Russell Means led hundreds of Native American dissidents and white allies in an occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, where the U.S. military murdered more than 350 Lakota men, women and children in an infamous act of outright genocide in 1890.  Means demanded that the U.S. meet the promises of all of its broken Indian treaties. Means’ band exchanged heavy gunfire with federal agents,  resulting in the deaths of two protesters and the serious wounding of an agent.  He was arrested, and only avoided a long prison term (the charges were assault, larceny and conspiracy) because the prosecution botched the case, leading to the case’s dismissal.

There was much more to Means’ eclectic activities. He acted, he ran for office, he protested Native American sports logos and mascots, and he was a persistent critic of not only the U.S. government but tribal governments as well. A radical libertarian, he was too independent to last in any organized party or group for long, and he would temporarily ally himself with anyone, including unsavory figures like pornographer Larry Flynt, Louis Farakkhan and even Qaddafi if he believed it would advance his cause. This did not make him popular, but Russell Means was not interested in personal popularity.

I can’t justify calling Russell Means an ethics hero. He, like Clarence Darrow and John Brown, embraced the dangerous ethical fallacy of unlimited utilitarianism, holding that the ends justify the means. (I concede that when your name is Means, this may be fate.) Yet Darrow’s case for Brown and those like him has more than a grain of truth. There are and have always been Gordian knots of injustice and evil that resist conventional, legal and ethical attempts to untie them. Often they are just cut through, by determined activists who are willing to break the rules, violate the laws, and accept the consequences. Then civilized society condemns their methods and them, while accepting the benefits of their unethical, but useful, actions in embarrassed ingratitude. Calling Russell Means a hero is too dangerous, for it endorses the abandonment of ethical values, but calling him less than a hero seems unfair. He was a leader, he was courageous, and his cause was just, if quixotic. Like our society, I’m not certain how to think about people like Russell Means.

I do know this. In the final scene of “The Last of the Mohicans,” his character, Chingachgook, prays to The Great Spirit in sorrow at the death of his son, which has doomed his tribe to extinction. Means stands on a mountain top, and for a sublime moment of the kind that seldom occurs in any dramatic medium, the actor and the character are magically merged. Means’ anger and determination are one with Chingachgook’s pride and sorrow, and viewing the scene in the theater, I felt, for the first time, the magnitude of what the Native Americans lost, and what the land has lost as well. I wept, and viewing that scene affects me the same way today.


* Darrow’s whole speech is included in my book with historian Ed Larson, “The Essential Words and Writings of Clarence Darrow.”   (Well, actually Clarence wrote most of it.) I’m sure it is online as well, but for some reason I couldn’t find it. Yes, this is a plug. If you can’t plug your book on your own blog, where can you plug it?



Graphic: A-W-I-P

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at

14 thoughts on “Ethics Hero Emeritus, Sort of: Russell Means (1940-2012)

  1. Well… I’m no fan of John Brown, Clarence Darrow or Russell Means. However, I didn’t even know that Means had died until reading this. I suppose, in his own way, he thought he was pursuing a worthy cause. I’ve often said that the worst thing that was ever done to the American Indians was the still-active reservation system, where they’ve stagnated as virtual wards of the state.

    Means was more the race politician type, along the lines of the post-King “civil rights” leadership. He wanted MORE government freebies based on race and color, not greater access to the opportunities of American life in a free, open society. Other American Indian groups, such as the Iroquois and the Lumbee, took the opposite approach and prospered- while losing nothing of their valued heritage. The Sioux, on the other hand, still reside on large reservations and are now known for aimlessness and drunkenness. They are hardly alone in this.

    Means could have used his influence to encourage his people to reconnect to their heritage, move out of those ghettos and put their talents to work, So might have Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton with black Americans. Instead, they chose the opposite track and wound up doing far more harm than good- while enriching themselves. Means may have been a cut above those others, but his political direction was similar.

    With their rich heritage, American Indians should have been contributors to this country to an extent far surpassing their actual numbers. Means correctly understood his people’s traditional values. He was unable, however, to understand that the very state wardship that had decimated those values was not the means by which it could be revived. Nor did he understand that the future was more important than opening the old wounds of times long past. An amazing blind spot, but all too typical for his times.

  2. Jack, I love it when you write about ambiguous ethical judgments. You helped me muddle my thinking about John Brown and Russell Means. (But not about Jefferson–I was already there.) I think MLK would have agreed with you. Here’s what he wrote about us white moderates:

    “I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

  3. Pingback: Ethics Hero Emeritus, Sort of: Russell Means (1940-2012) | Ethics … | Defensive Lawyers

  4. When it comes to Brown and Means , and also Malcom X I remember this quote:

    Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.
    Barry Goldwater

  5. Wait, did they physically attack people dressed as pilgrims? Like, actors? That’s…kinda stupid.

    I’m going to protect my Right to Keep My Brains this Halloween by taking a chainsaw to anyone dressed as a zombie…

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