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A World Apart : Indian Activists Dennis Banks and Russell Means Are Back Together--but Hardly United--in a Forgotten Slice of America Called Wounded Knee

June 15, 1986|BELLA STUMBO | Bella Stumbo is a Times staff writer.

History was written here in 1973, when Dennis Banks and Russell Means led the American Indian Move ment's armed seizure of Wounded Knee, this tiny hamlet in the heart of South Dakota's Pine Ridge Sioux reservation.

Hundreds of federal agents descended, encircling at least as many militant Indians holed up in houses and a church. The standoff lasted 71 days. Bullets flew, helicopters buzzed overhead, roads were blockaded and the hills swarmed with journalists from all over the world, chronicling the drama of a 20th-Century Indian uprising against the U.S. government.

When it was over, a federal marshal had been permanently paralyzed and two young Indians were dead. Otherwise, not much was accomplished--certainly not for Pine Ridge residents, who remain among the poorest people in the nation.

But Means and Banks had become the two most famous Indians since Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse wiped out Custer nearly a century earlier. Their pictures had been in newspapers from Tokyo to Berlin, they were the darlings of practically anybody who had ever marched against the Vietnam War, condemned Richard Nixon or boycotted a California grape. Even Marlon Brando knew who they were.

Their trial on 10 felony counts each, as widely publicized as the occupation itself, lasted eight months before a federal judge threw the case out on grounds of prosecutorial misconduct.

From there, destiny divided them.

While one busily set about becoming the world's most flamboyant Indian, the other went on the run for more than a decade, just trying to stay out of jail on a riot conviction stemming from an incident predating Wounded Knee.

But now, for the first time in 13 years, Dennis Banks and Russell Means are both back where it all began, living about 30 miles apart on the Pine Ridge reservation.

While one now enthusiastically plots the capture of some 120 million reservation prairie dogs, the other wants to help Ronald Reagan topple the Marxist Sandinista regime of Nicaragua.

Looking at the pair today, it's hard to envision them willingly occupying even the same room for more than an hour, much less an entire village for 2 1/2 months.

For Russell Means, now 46, life took on exciting new flavor at Wounded Knee.

He has seen himself as a global figure ever since, spokesman not only for AIM but for all oppressed, indigenous peoples of the world. He travels constantly, strident, defiant, volatile and more opinionated than ever, lecturing to whoever will listen about the assorted evils of capitalism, Marxism, the white man, and whatever new cause may have captured his fancy. Occasionally, he tempers his militancy with just enough quick, cynical wit to make even his critics smile. He is at his best when the TV cameras are rolling.

Former California boy, one-time public accountant, ex-ballroom dance instructor and past fashion plate given to three-piece suits and French cuffs, Means threw away his ties after Wounded Knee and became a Hollywood vision of the forever resplendent Indian. Wherever he goes nowadays, he is invariably bedecked in enough turquoise, silver, beadwork, cowhide and snakeskin to make even other Indians turn and stare. His braids are always elaborately dressed in long leather-fringe bindings. Designer jeans and pleated pants are his most conspicuous concession to the white world of fashion.

Never conventional in his selection of friends and causes, Means has courted Libya's besieged pariah Moammar Kadafi and the Nation of Islam's loose-tongued brother Louis Farrakhan. Two years ago, he ran for vice president on a ticket with pornographer Larry Flynt, whose very sanity has occasionally been called into question. Now he is assiduously wooing the Unification Church's Moonies, so called in honor of their spiritual leader, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who just spent a year in prison for tax fraud.

On a more personal level, Means has also, along the way: been stabbed a couple of times, shot at once; served a year in prison for rioting (in a nearby white town with the nerve to name itself Custer in the heart of Sioux country); been acquitted on a barroom murder charge, and acquired a legendary reputation for womanizing.

Although he is rarely there, Means lives with his fourth wife and a baby son (his eighth child) in Porcupine, seven miles from Wounded Knee. It is a small, modest home, three rooms, dominated by the largest color console TV money can buy, an extensive clutter of Means' body-building equipment, and pictures of him. Everywhere.

Much of Means' personal memorabilia testifies to his continuing penchant for occupations and demonstrations. In one of his lighter moments, he once publicly urinated atop Mt. Rushmore in protest of the white man's desecration of Sioux holy lands.

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