Means, Russell and Peltier, Leonard

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Native Americans
Social Justice
The importance of both Russell Means and Leonard Peltier lies in the extent to which their efforts and actions have raised of the awareness of the American public to the harsh conditions faced by Native Americans on many reservations.

Biographical Highlights

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Russell Means and Leonard Peltier were extremely active in efforts to address the treatment of Native Americans in the United States. They are controversial figures, both within and outside of the Native American community, as their actions were sometimes seen as overly radical. However, the sincerity in their intentions to help their fellow Native Americans cannot be denied.

Russell Means came into prominence in the Native American community through his membership in the American Indian Movement (AIM). As one of the key members of AIM, he took part in a variety of actions and protests, including demonstrations at Mt. Rushmore in 1970 and 1971 and the boarding of the Mayflower II in Plymouth, MA on Thanksgiving, 1970. Most notably, however, Means was a key organizer of the Trail of Broken Treaties caravan in 1972, culminating in the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) offices in Washington D.C. He also took part in the occupation of Wounded Knee, SD during early 1973, which sought to draw attention to grievances with the tribal government and to address harsh living conditions on Native American reservations (Wilson 2001).

Leonard Peltier was also involved with a variety of Native American civil rights issues during the same time frame as Russell Means. During the late 1960’s, Peltier helped establish a half way house for Native American ex-convicts, assisted with alcohol counseling and took part in efforts to preserve Native American lands (Matthiessen 1991 and Peltier 1999). He also participated in the Trail of Broken Treaties caravan and the occupation of the BIA offices (Peltier 1999). In June of 1975, Peltier was involved in a shoot-out with law enforcement at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, in which two FBI agents were killed. Peltier was arrested, stood trial, and found guilty of killing the two agents (Messerschmidt 1983). He remains in jail today as a result of this conviction.

Historic RootsRussell Means

Russell Means was born on November 10, 1939 on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. In 1942, his family moved to Vallejo, CA, where Means would later attend public school, graduating from San Leandro High School in 1958. In 1964, he joined his father and several dozen other Sioux in a one-day occupation of Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco. The occupation was significant in that it was designed to highlight provisions of an 1868 treaty between the US government and the Sioux, which stated that the Sioux could lay claim to unused Federal land. His participation in this protest seems to be the single most important factor in Means’ later activism (Wilson 2001).

In 1967, Means worked for a community action program on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. In 1968, he moved to Cleveland as part of a BIA program of resettling Native Americans in urban settings, with the intention that they might find more economic opportunities. There, Means helped create the Cleveland American Indian Center, which assisted relocated Native Americans in acclimating to their new surroundings. After attending several AIM meetings, Means joined the organization in 1970 (Wilson 2001). After this, his activities in support of Native American issues took a decidedly more militant turn, as was the nature of AIM.

In early 1972, both Means and Aim gained notoriety in the Native American community for calling attention to the murder of a Native American in Gordon, NE, not far from the Pine Ridge Reservation. Means organized protests, meetings and calls for further investigation into the man’s death. Later in 1972, Means helped AIM organize the Trail of Broken Treaties; a caravan of Native Americans starting on the West Coast, and building as it moved east, culminating in a protest in Washington D.C. The idea was to raise awareness of treaties from the 1800s, which had promised Indian tribes the rights to vast tracts of land, but were never honored. Upon arrival in the nations capital, poor accommodations for the protesters combined with little interest from the BIA for their concerns, led to an 8-day occupation of the BIA headquarters offices, which ended only when Federal officials agreed to hear Native American grievances (Wilson 2001). This was a unifying event for Native Americans around the US (Wilson 2001 and Peltier 1999).

The final significant involvement by Means in a protest action came at Wounded Knee, SD in early 1973. The residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation, in which Wounded Knee is located, had been experiencing particularly high levels of unemployment, along with inadequate housing and medical care. Frustration among the residents led to significant levels of violence, as they clashed with security officers employed by an extremely controversial tribal chairman, Dick Wilson. AIM, which was banned from Pine Ridge by Wilson, was called onto the reservation to protect residents from what was commonly referred to as Wilson’s “goon squad”. Members of AIM, along with a group of Native Americans calling themselves the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization, occupied the small town of Wounded Knee for 71 days. They were surrounded my armed police, FBI and BIA officers, while once again demanding government authorities address the poor conditions on the Sioux reservation, along with broken treaties. The incident drew national attention, attracting to the site former presidential candidate and US Senator George McGovern, who met with residents and protesters (Wilson 2001).

Since the mid-1970s, Means has taken part in less controversial actions in support of Native American rights. He has fought to reclaim the Black Hills of South Dakota as Native American land. The Black Hills were part of the Sioux land spelled out in the 1868 treaty, but were taken from them in 1877. He ran unsuccessfully for a spot on the Libertarian Party presidential ticket during the 1980s. He organized a protest against the 1992 Denver, CO Columbus Day parade, that lead to the parade’s cancellation. His charismatic nature even landed him several roles in movies during the 1990s (Wilson 2001).

Historic RootsLeonard Peltier

Leonard Peltier was involved in the fight for Native American rights in a less dramatic manner than Russell Means. If not for a controversial murder conviction, for which he is still imprisoned, he may have never received the level of notoriety attained by Russell Means.

Peltier was born on September 12, 1944 in Grand Forks, ND. At four years of age, after his parents divorced, he was sent to live with his grandparents on the Turtle Mountain Reservation near Belcourt, ND (Matthiessen 1991). In 1953, Peltier was sent to a military style boarding school run by the BIA in Wahpeton, ND. Upon completion of the BIA school program in 1957, he attended a public school in South Dakota until the 9th grade, at which point he returned to live with his family on the Turtle Mountain Reservation. While attending a meeting with his father concerning the termination of the Turtle Mountain Reservation, Peltier was moved when his cousin stood up and forcefully asked who were the warriors who would fight for the rights of their people. Hearing this inspired Peltier to devote his life to helping his people. In 1959 he moved to the West Coast to live with his mother, who had moved there earlier as part of the BIA resettlement program (Peltier 1999).

In 1965, Peltier was part owner of a body shop in Seattle that also served as a half way house for Native American ex-convicts. Upon seeing television reports of Native Americans being violently denied fishing rights granted to them in 1800s treaties by the modern commercial and sports fisherman, Peltier became involved the fight to protect Native fishing rights in the Northwest. He also took part in the occupation of Fort Lawton in Seattle, a similar endeavor to the higher profile take over of Alcatraz in San Francisco (Peltier 1999). Peltier lived in several places in the Southwest during the 1970s, and briefly settled in Denver, where he met AIM activist Vernon Bellecourt, who recruited him into the organization. He also resided briefly in Milwaukee in 1972, where he worked to combat alcohol abuse in the Native American community (Matthiessen 1991). In late 1972, Peltier took part in the Trail of Broken Treaties caravan and was present during the occupation of the BIA offices in Washington, DC (Peltier 1999).

Between 1973 and 1975, Peltier was involved in various legal infractions and spent several months in jail until a high bail amount could be posted (Matthiessen 1991). This was not unusual for Native Americans, who were often the target of police harassment. AIM was in fact initially created to fight and document police harassment of Native Americans in Minneapolis. So, during this time Peltier kept a low profile, and appears to have only been involved, once again, in fishing rights issues in the Northwest (Matthiessen 1991).

In early 1975, as a member of AIM, he was part of a contingent again called to the Pine Ridge Reservation to aid the residents there, who continued to live under the same harsh conditions that lead to the Wounded Knee two years earlier. On June 26 1975, a shoot-out took place between residents of the reservation and law enforcement officials. During the shoot-out, two FBI agents were fatally wounded (Matthiessen 1991). Peltier and three other men were eventually arrested for the killings. Peltier briefly fled to Canada, but was extradited back to the US by what were later purported to be fraudulent documents (The People’s Path Home Page). Of the four arrested, three were acquitted in trials taking place in South Dakota. Peltier’s trial took place in North Dakota, where he was found guilty and sentenced to two life terms (Messerschmidt 1983 and The People’s Path Home Page). He has remained in prison since the late 1970s based on this conviction.


The importance of both Russell Means and Leonard Peltier lies in the extent to which their efforts and actions have raised of the awareness of the American public to the harsh conditions faced by Native Americans on many reservations. The occupation of Wounded Knee brought national attention to the cause, and was not only supported by various well known personalities of the time, but was also generally viewed sympathetically by the American public (Wilson 2001). Some have criticized Means for being too radical. Others have suggested that although Means and the AIM movement were skilled at calling attention to Native American issues, they lacked the skills necessary to negotiate and bring about true systemic change (Vizenor 1999). However, Means dedication to Native American causes and his ability to maintain a visible profile are undeniable.

Ironically, Leonard Peltier’s continuing imprisonment has probably done more to maintain the public’s awareness of Native American rights than he would have been able to do himself as a free man. Amnesty International, as well as high-level international human rights advocates such as Nelson Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama has called for his release (The Case of Leonard Peltier). Such attention not only keeps Peltier, the individual, in the public eye, but also maintains a level of awareness of Native American rights in general.


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Due the radical nature of Mean’s and Peltier’s work, along with Peltier’s extended imprisonment, ties for either to mainstream philanthropy are extremely limited. However, Means is directly tied to one endeavor, while the earlier work of both has certainly had an influence on the formation of current, more mainstream Native American philanthropic organizations.

  • The Indian Land Tenure Foundation is dedicated to preserving existing Native American reservation lands and the cultures that exist within them. The goals of the organization seem to reflect a more subdued approach to the concern over lost Native American lands, which drove many of the protests of the 1960s and 1970s (
  • The International Indian Treaty Council works to maintain the cultures and protect the rights of indigenous peoples around the world through cooperation with the United Nations. A page of the organization’s web site is dedicated to the case of Leonard Peltier. On Russell Means’ web site, Means indicates he helped establish this organization. However, there is no reference to Means on the Treaty Council web site (
  • Native Americans in Philanthropy seeks to build ties between the Native American and philanthropic communities with the goals of increasing awareness of Native American culture and concerns in the philanthropic world, as well increasing access for Native Americans to various forms of not-for-profit funding. Joy Persall, Executive Director of the organization, states that Means’ and Peltier’s efforts in fighting for Native American rights can be seen as philanthropy in one of its purest forms (Persall) (
  • The T.R.E.A.T.Y. Total Immersion School is in the process of being created by Russell Means in Porcupine, SD on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Russell Means donated 160 acres of land to the school, which is intended to exist within a self-sustaining community where children can learn Lakota culture (


Key Related Ideas

The 1868 Fort Laramie Sioux Treaty came at the conclusion of a war in which several Native American tribes fought the US army to a stalemate. The treaty spelled out the borders of a Sioux reservation, which would occupy parts of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska. In subsequent years, the US government took over a significant amount of the land when valuable minerals were discovered there. The largest removal came in 1876 after the discovery of gold in the Black Hills a few years earlier (Messerschmidt 1983). Today, the remaining land from this once large area consists of a few relatively small and disconnected reservations (Infoplease, Indian Reservations).

In addition to spelling out the geographic boundaries of the reservation, the treaty provided promises of various forms of economic assistance from the US government (Burnette and Koster 1974). An interpretation also stated that Native Americans had the right to claim any abandoned Federal property as their own. This final point formed the basis of the occupations of Alcatraz prison and Fort Lawton in the late 1960s and early 1970s. On a broader scale, however, the historic reduction in reservation land as well as the substandard living conditions on many reservations across the country led to the larger protests occurring in the 1970s which called for the addressing of broken treaties and Native American rights in general.

The BIA’s Indian Relocation Program was an attempt to move Native Americans from reservations, which typically offered little economic opportunities, and into urban settings which supposedly offered more in the way of housing and jobs. The program was criticized for taking Native Americans from familiar surroundings and placing them in foreign environments where they were met with discrimination and continued poor housing and employment prospects. The program ran from 1948 through 1979 (Newberry Library Chicago). As described above, Russell Means formed a center in Cleveland to assist relocated Native Americans, and Leonard Peltier’s move to the West Coast, where his activism began, was driven by his desire to be near his mother, who moved to Portland under the relocation program.

Important People Related to the Topic 

  • Dennis Banks (born 1937) (Infoplease, Banks): The activism of both Russell Means and Leonard Peltier was greatly influenced by their membership in AIM, and Banks was among the small group of co-founders of AIM in 1968 (Dennis Banks Home Page). He helped recruit Means into AIM during an early meeting of the group in San Francisco in 1969. Banks and Means served as key organizers of the Trail of Broken Treaties caravan and the occupation of Wounded Knee (Wilson 2001). He led a failed effort in 1996 to secure the release of Leonard Peltier from prison (Dennis Banks Home Page). 
  • Clyde (born 1936) and Vernon (birth year unknown) Bellecourt (Wikipedia): The Bellecourt brothers were also key members of AIM and were involved with many of AIM’s high profile activities during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Clyde was essentially the group’s first national director (Bellecourt 1999). While head of the Denver office of AIM, Vernon met and recruited Leonard Peltier into the organization (Matthiessen 1991).
  • Richard Oakes (born 1942, died 1972) (HitecAztec): Oakes was the leader of a second occupation of Alcatraz Island. The abandoned island was initially occupied for less than 24 hours in 1964 by a small group of Native Americans (including a young Russell Means), who claimed their right to take ownership of surplus Federal land per the 1868 Ft. Laramie Sioux treaty. The second occupation, beginning on November 20, 1969 and lasting until June 11, 1971, rather than being a publicity stunt, was a true attempt to establish a Native American community on the island (Smith and Warrior 1996). The full text of a proclamation read during a benefit concert for the island occupiers can be found at: Oakes briefly visited and advised the occupiers of Ft. Lawton in Seattle, of which Leonard Peltier was a participant (Matthiessen 1991). In September 1972, Richard Oakes was killed by a white man, who claimed to have shot Oakes in self-defense. The man served no jail time for the shooting. This event served as a galvanizing point for Trail of Broken Treaties caravan, which began the following month (Wilson 2001).


Bibliography and Internet Sources

  • Bellecourt, Vernon. “Birth of AIM” In Native American Testimony: A Chronicle of Indian-White Relations from Prophecy to the Present 1492-1992, edited by Peter Nabokov, 373-376. Auckland, London, New York, Toronto, Victoria AUS: Penguin, 1999. ISBN: 0670837040.
  • Burnette, Robert and John Koster. The Road to Wounded Knee. London, New York, Toronto: Bantam Books, 1974. RLI: VLM 10 (VLR 8-12) IL 9-adult. ISBN: 0553085387.
  • Dennis Banks Home Page. Dennis J. Banks’ Biography.
  • HitecAztec. Richard Oakes.
  • Infoplease. Dennis Banks.
  • Infoplease. U.S. Federal and State Indian Reservations.
  • Matthiessen, Peter. In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. Auckland, London, Markham ON, New York, Victoria AUS: Viking Penguin, 1991. ISBN 0670836176.
  • Messerschmidt, Jim. The Trial of Leonard Peltier. Boston: South End Press, 1983. ISBN: 089608163x.
  • Newberry Library Chicago. History of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Indian Relocation Program.
  • Peltier, Leonard. Prison Writings: My Life is My Sun Dance. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. ISBN: 0312203543.
  • Persall, Joy A. “Re: Means/Peltier” E-mail from Executive Director of Native Americans in Philanthropy, October 21, 2005.
  • Smith, Paul Chaat and Robert Allen Warrior. Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee. New York: The New Press, 1996. ISBN: 1565843169.
  • The Case of Leonard Peltier. Statement of Fact.
  • The People’s Paths Home Page. Chronology of Leonard Peltier.
  • Vizenor, Gerald. “Confrontation or Negotiation” In Native American Testimony: A Chronicle of Indian-White Relations from Prophecy to the Present 1492-1992, edited by Peter Nabokov, 377-380. Auckland, London, New York, Toronto, Victoria AUS: Penguin, 1999. ISBN: 0670837040.
  • Wikipedia. Clyde Bellecourt.
  • Wilson, Raymond. “Russell Means/Lakota” In The New Warriors: Native American Leaders since 1900, edited by David Edmunds, 147-164. Lincoln, London: University of Nebraska Press, 2001. ISBN: 0803218206.