‘Irreconcilable Differences’ : WHERE WHITE MEN FEAR TO TREAD: The Autobiography of Russell Means,<i> By Russell Means with Marvin J. Wolf (St. Martin’s; $25.95; 573 pp.)</i>
Russell Means, arguably this country’s most notorious Indian rights activist and more recently a Hollywood screen actor--he was a capable Chingachgook in the film “The Last of the Mohicans” and the strong voice of Chief Powhatan in Disney’s animated “Pocohantas"--despised “Dances With Wolves.” “I thought of it as a ‘Lawrence of the Plains,’ ” he writes near the close of his autobiography, “an overblown saga that merely substituted a new cliche for the old, the reverse side of the same racist coin.”
Would that such sagacity informed the rest of Means’ book.
Instead, at an interminably windy 573 pages, the misbegottenly entitled “Where White Men Fear to Tread,” written with free-lance writer Marvin J. Wolf, proves an exercise in propaganda and polemic that at last resembles nothing so much as an overblown saga merely substituting a new cliche for the old, the reverse side of the same racist coin.
And this is regrettable, for while Means may be no poet-philosopher or paragon of intellect, he has by his own self-congratulatory recounting lived a life of uncustomary drama in leonine pursuit of what he properly apprehends are the dignity, respect and justice owed Native Americans. It is a pursuit whose theatrical zenith arrived with his leadership of the American Indian Movement’s (AIM) armed takeover of Wounded Knee, S.D., in February of 1973--chronicled here in several of the book’s more compelling chapters--which appears to have aligned him in its the cross-hairs of pursuit since. (He claims to have been the target in his lifetime of more than a dozen assassination attempts.)
The autobiographical form typically soars or sputters concomitant with the quality of the narrative voice--its authority and wit, passion and perspicacity. This is quite ruinously the case with “Where White Men Fear to Tread,” which seems never to forsake the opportunity to substitute rhetoric for human speech and bluster for simple communication. Rendered in an ineloquent, blunderbuss prose that slogs oafishly between the excruciatingly infantile and wincingly adolescent--much of it evincing the texture of having been dumped ungrammatically onto the page, raw spillage straight from the tape recorder--it is a transparently stacked deck of a text more often resembling political rant and cultural manifesto than the portrayal of a man’s life.
Indeed, because the book was so clearly written less with than for a purpose--that is, to grind an ideological and racial ax (Means is fond of perorating endlessly about the Oneness of Nature and Family-ness of All Creatures even as he disparages and excoriates those who would dare question his weltanschauung)--the reader has the discomfiting feeling, not of being spoken to, but at; the author huffing and puffing in the vociferous attempt to blow him down.
“I won’t visit the White House,” Means harrumphs apropos of nothing in particular along about mid-book, “until I can go as a free man, not as a hostage in my own country over which the federal government has total control.” You get the picture.
Utterly the apple of his own monochromatic eye--Means casts himself in even the tritest and most trivial matters as the dramatis persona--his is a reality refracted through a spectacularly Hubbled lens. “Custer was not killed in battle. He took his own life . . . he was not a foe worthy of respect. . . . He was a butcher, not a soldier. . . . No self-respecting Lakota wanted the dishonor of killing a maggot such as Custer. (I apologize here for insulting maggots. . . .)” Custer was no choirboy, but perhaps it is not niggling to suggest that this sort of howitzer-to-slay-a-nit rhetorical overkill, typical of the voice that swaggers roughshod throughout, is more appropriate to a kindergarten playground than a book, even a book that--cross my heart--contains the following:
* “The three Rs of the white man’s education have nothing to do with life.”
* “If [white people] can’t establish a relationship with an Indian, what chance do they have with other living things? . . . No wonder there is filth everywhere.”
* “The job of the President of the United States is to oppress me, my children, and my people.”
* “Catholics are the most vicious killers in this hemisphere.”
* “The United States wants to turn all Americans into welfare recipients . . . because, as demonstrated with my people, long-term welfare destroys families and creates a pliant, easily manipulated society.”
* “There are only two cultures on Earth, one industrial and the other indigenous, one is about death, the other about life.”
Means parcels his story into four parts. The first documents his birth in 1939 on the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota and a roughneck, off-reservation childhood-to-early-adulthood pocked with petty thievery, public drunkenness, intermittent drug use, serial unemployment, out-of-wedlock children and protracted periods of homelessness. The second focuses on the raising of his social consciousness in the early 1970s, primarily through his involvement with the politically confrontational AIM. As chronicled in Part 3, that work eventually led to Wounded Knee, Means’ arrest and a trial that culminated in a dismissal of charges owing to prosecutorial overzealousness. Part 4 contains the most gripping passages in the book, those describing his genuinely heroic, if ultimately Quixotic, endeavors in the mid-1980s to assist Nicaragua’s ill-used Miskito Indians.
All of which as good as evanesces before a narrative sensibility more wont to bemoan the slaughter of the buffalo than entertain the prospect that a subculture that declines to accommodate the zeitgeist bred of scientific innovation and its offspring technologies is destined to be rendered superfluous to it; that whether it be the outback, the rain forest or a government reservation, the satellite dish and the camcorder trump the shaman and the taleteller every time; that alongside MTV and the Worldwide Web, the alchemical promise invoked by dreams, chants, dances, trances, conjurations, visions, transports and stories perforce pales; and that, metaphorically speaking, one best get online or risk being slurped down history’s black hole like so much anti-matter. Nor is this a matter of race, morality or politics, but of vectors and vortices, of the technological toothpaste, if you will, being out of the tube. History may proceed in cycles. It does not, not even for Russell Means, run in reverse.
That America’s tribal peoples historically have been the victims of genocidal government policies is unassailable. That many of them subsist today emotionally lacerated, spiritually beleaguered and materially impoverished by the legacy of those policies is as true as it is deplorable. About that, it is the author’s prerogative to be angry, bitter and resentful, and for 550 relentless if inelegant pages, that is precisely what he is.
But there, for him, it ends. For despite the indefatigable, if self-aggrandizing work on behalf of his people, Means--who prefers the racialist eponyms “Oglala Lakota patriot” and “born-again primitive"--remains more enamored of playing the card-carrying ethnic minority living in two-fisted opposition to the corrupt, craven overculture than of undertaking the infinitely more complex business of healing, renewing and arriving at rapprochement with it. He simply will (much after the fashion of one of his heroes, Louis Farrakhan) frame his story in terms of exclusion and division--red vs. white, saint vs. sinners, David vs. Goliath, me vs. the world--as if all of non-Indian life were a nefarious conspiracy staged expressly to affront, confound and oppress him and his people, if not to steal their souls. Means is not merely a victim; he has, as his autobiography documents, fashioned of his victimhood a self-serving, hatemongering pathology.
It is, of course, precisely the sort of reductionist, demagogic mind-cast--paranoid in impulse, totalitarian in fact, coldblooded in execution--that has produced so many of history’s most incendiary radicals. Unfortunately, fire-spewing zealots tend to make memoir writers more inclined to conjure heat than light. Which is only to observe that while one may admire much about the way Means has chosen to live his life--he is, indisputably, as Eduardo Galeano once observed of Che Guevara, “that rare kind of person who says what he thinks and does what he says"--one need not be inhibited from admiring less so the petulant, willfully polarizing book he has chosen to write about it.