‘Where White Men Fear to Tread’
By Malcolm Brenner
Where White Men Fear to Tread: The Autobiography of Russell Means by Russell Means with Marvin J. Wolf. $26.95, St. Martins Press, N.Y.
GALLUP-I wish I was a Red Man So I’d know where I came from
Play all day on my drum But I’m an Evil White Man…
Hindu Rodeo, Evil White Man
Those lyrics synchronistically came over my radio as I was about halfway through Russell Means’ self-serving, provocatively-title autobiography, and they pretty well sum up his message: I’d be a nice guy if it wasn’t for all of you white m—f—‘s out their making my life miserable.
In one sense, I find this book difficult to criticize. Many Native Americans regard Means as a hero for standing up to white racism. He gets no argument from me that America’s Indians are the most oppressed racial group in the country, that they have been forced off their homelands and are the victims of vicious genocide.
I am also less than objective, having met Means personally in the course of my job. Admittedly it was under less than ideal circumstances, but I found him hostile, defensive, and rude. This is a man, I remember thinking, who has made a career out of intimidating white people-many of whom I hasten to add, probably deserved it.
His autobiography explains why and tells how.
Means opens with a brief recounting of Lakota history and the violence wreaked upon his people.
His parents moved off the Pine Ride reservation in 1942, and he was reared in the north San Francisco Bay area. Means attributes both is father’s alcoholism, and his mother’s physical abusiveness to their education in Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools.
This upbringing left Means with an apparently inexhaustible reservoir of pain and rage. He chronicles his progression form a young punk hoodlum to an alcoholic adult, losing jobs, dealing dope, running petty scams, getting busted up in fights, abusing women and fathering children only to abandon them.
He seems perversely proud of having been the meanest, most irresponsible s.o.b. in the valley-after all, whites were to blame for his problems.
In the midst of this debauchery Means reveals an incongruous Puritanical streak. He denounces powwows as the corruption of Plains Indians’ traditions. He calls his marriage to a Hopi woman an act of mongrelization. We later find out she left him not because of traditional differences, as he implies, but because he neglected her devoting all his time to the nascent American Indian Movement.
Means became one of the founding fathers of AIM, and in so doing rose from an obscure drunken lout to a national spokesman for Native American rights. In that sense, this book is bound to elicit comparison to The Autobiography of Malcom X.
However, Malcom X aspired to a higher ethical and moral standard than the racists he opposed. He may have threatened race war against an oppressive system, but he never stooped to the style of thuggism that was AIM’s ethical norm. Petty theft, drunken parties, drug dealing, intimidation and violence were all okay as long as they were ostensibly directed against “the enemy,” white people.
Over and over again, Means makes blanket condemnations of all ‘White People’ that he would assuredly bust my chops for if I made them about Indians. Indian ways are in every respect superior to white ways, and Indians lived in a problem-free paradise before whites arrived and messed things up. His hypocrisy, in this respect, is astounding and undermines the righteousness of his cause.
Readers should understand that this book is Russell Means’ version of reality, and it does not necessarily bear any relationship to the truth. Means may have given up alcohol, but he still carries the alcoholic attitude that twists the facts to meet his emotional needs. He tells you only what he wants you to know, or what he thinks you’re stupid enough to believe.
This, he can state straight-faced that brutal Navajo Police fired on unarmed, peaceful protesters during the 1989 Turmoil in Window Rock; that the Aztecs were really practicing open-heart surgery, not human sacrifice; that 42 percent of all Native American women were sterilized by the Indian Health Service, and that AIM only acted in ‘self-defense.’
Here’s an example of Mean’s self-defense. On trial for a murder in South Dakota in 1975, he prematurely decided the jury is going to convict him. “I wasn’t going to spend the rest of my life in prison. With two AIMsters, I made a plan. When the verdict was announced, they would shoot the jury and I would kill the prosecutors and the judge. Then we would take white women for hostages, tape guns to their throats and make a run for it.”
Fortunately, these evil, bigoted white jurists acquitted Means, and his colleagues, relieving him of the responsibility for self-defense.
Means doesn’t even mention his participation in AIM’s worst blunder, the occupation of the Shiprock Fairchild semiconductor plant in 1974, presumably because this debacle cost 1,000 decent, hardworking Navajos their jobs.
While I can’t say for sure, I suspect the rest of this book is similarly self-censored, making it untrustworthy as history.
The book’s factual accuracy-names, places, dates-is due in large measure to the inexhaustible efforts of Means’ collaborator Marvin J. Wolf, who spent 2 ½ years and took out a second mortgage on his house to complete it.
Ultimately, this book is a chronicle of Means’ bottomless rage. It may have been justified by the circumstances of his life in particular or American Indians’ lives in general, but about halfway through I started gagging on it.
Whether one reads Where White Men Fear to Tread as a revolutionary’s triumph over incredible odds or an alcoholic’s unending battle with himself will depend upon one’s opinion of Russell Means. As Wolf himself says, “Russell is a lot easier to admire than he is to like.”
And so a young punk running petty scams became a mature thug running larger scams, nothing honorable in any phase of Russell’s misbegotten life.
A key phrase in this review is the following:
“Readers should understand that this book is Russell Means’ version of reality, and it does not necessarily bear any relationship to the truth.”
Above all other things Russell Means was the stereotypical narcissist, a sociopath of the first order – neither being the stuff “heroes” are made of. Neither being likeable or admirable.