Opinion: Two South Dakotans left their mark on Indian Country

"History is often made by accident, so we should not read too much into the almost simultaneous deaths last week of South Dakotans Russell Means and George McGovern. Nevertheless, their common passing should remind us of the intersecting paths they traveled in life and the common goals they served. The obituaries say otherwise. Means, posing defiantly for cameras wearing his ribbon shirt and braids, represented the modern Indian warrior, while McGovern, in his seventies suits and wide ties, typified the Democratic Party stalwart. The contrast between them can be underscored by recalling that forty years ago next week Means became an international media star when, on the eve of the 1972 Presidential election, he led an occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C. As Senator McGovern campaigned desperately to stop a Nixon landslide, Means and his allies were erecting signs renaming their prize the Native American “embassy” and daring the White House to evict them.

The juxtaposition of the Native outsider and the mainstream politician is appealing to commentators. Denied citizenship for most of U.S. history and routinely ignored by arrogant policymakers, activists like Means often had little choice but to resist. But Means’s career often crossed paths with politicians like McGovern and few outsiders understand that Indian activists have often entered—and altered—the mainstream of American politics. By separating these two men in our memory we risk forgetting that the contemporary vibrancy of Native American communities owes as much to Indian lobbyists, lawyers and lecturers as it does to those who chose violence and confrontation. Those activists worked to make a place for Native people within the borders of the United States. Unfortunately, their efforts are frequently dismissed."

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Frederick Hoxie: Russell Means and George McGovern Left Their Marks on Indian Country (Indian Country Today 10/29)

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