As producer of the documentary End of the Line: The Women of Standing Rock, Pearl Means continues the legacy of her late husband and freedom fighter Russell Means.
Russell Means was bigger than life. The New York Times eulogized him as perhaps the most famous Native American since Crazy Horse. Russell ended his best selling autobiography Where White Men Fear to Tread by identifying himself as an Oglala Lakota Patriot. In the 70s, the occupations of Wounded Knee and Mt. Rushmore, along with the other protest actions he helped lead, brought the issues of native rights back into mainstream American consciousness. As a kid he admitted to “truancy, crime and drugs” until the American Indian Movement gave his life aim. As a prominent leader (A.I.M.’s first National Director) he was imprisoned for just over a year thanks to an archaic law called “Riot to Obstruct Justice.” He took two bullets in separate assassination attempts, and a third bullet from an Indian Affairs police officer in North Dakota. He went on to run for president in 1987.
As an actor, Russell played Chingachgook in 1992’s epic movie Last of the Mohicans, as well as roles in 30 other films and TV shows, including Curb Your Enthusiasm. As Winona Laduke said at a Sun Dance honoring him: “Russell Means made being Indian cool.” But he always remained a freedom fighter: running for office, appearing at events, leading sovereignty movements, and advocating for a return to matriarchy.
Since her husband’s passing, Pearl Means continues to do the work of his legacy. This includes her involvement with a legal case that will test the meaning of a trust in treaties between indigenous nations and countries to being a key producer of Emmy-winning filmmaker Shannon Kring’s documentary End of the Line: The Women of Standing Rock.
It’s a rough time at Standing Rock. A harsh winter has brought the number of Water Protectors down from the thousands to the hundreds. Some Water Protectors have gone to other sites where water protection protests need attention, like Two Rivers Camp fighting the Trans Pecos Pipeline in Texas. Enough remain to continue to make a stand against DAPL. During the week of the inauguration, one Water Protector was injured while protesting, allegedly by a law enforcement officer on a snow mobile. During her speech at the Women’s March in DC, a Lakota elder accused the tribal chairman of selling out the Water Protectors. Standing Rock tribal authorities have asked all camps to leave, to allow time to clean the area before the thaw. President Trump yesterday used executive order to advance the Keystone and DAPL pipelines. The tribal council says they will respond through legal actions in the courts, while Oceti Sakowin has issued a call for Water Protectors to return. Leaders like Linda Black Elk and Waste’ Win Young say they will stay to face the forces that will be sent to evict them.
Watching the inspiring international Women’s March on DC on CSPAN, I heard Standing Rock mentioned many times. Standing Rock t-shirts and signs were seen in the crowd and chants of mni wiconi (water is life) were heard. Having witnessed a small part of the worldwide support for the Water Protectors, especially among women, it seemed to me that the women of Standing Rock are a direct inspiration to the Women’s Marches. Women’s March honorary co-chair Angela Davis confirmed that when she talked about Standing Rock during her speech to the crowd in DC.
I’m honored to interview Water Protector Pearl Means for Reality Sandwich.
Tamra Lucid: When did you first become involved with Standing Rock?
Pearl Means: My late husband, Russell Means, stated both privately and publicly after his transition to the next world that he planned to return as lightning. In late summer of 2016, I began thinking I needed to travel to Standing Rock and see how I might be of assistance. Phyllis Young, Russell’s Hunka sister (through a sacred adoption ceremony) had been very instrumental in defeating the XL Pipeline the previous year, and I had been in communication with her around DAPL. I had been delaying my trip by saying this weekend I’ll make plans, etc. Well, that all changed on Aug. 22nd about noon.
I was sitting at my computer in my office in Northern NM when, out of nowhere, a very highly charged bolt of lightning hit the center of my stomach and instantaneously shot up and down my being. I screamed and jumped up, looking at both my hands and feet. Once I realized I was physically ok, I walked out of my office. Pungent smells of burning electrical wire and sulfur hit my senses. I quickly assessed my immediate environment — everything looked to be normal, and it began to rain. Later I realized it was Russell knocking me out of my comfort zone to get me up to Standing Rock!
In what ways are you involved as a Water Protector?
How did you become producer of the documentary End of the Line: The Women of Standing Rock?
Shannon Kring, whom interviewed Russell and I back in February of 2012, contacted me a few days after I had been struck by lightening asking if I had plans to go to Standing Rock. I gave her my schedule and she arrived a couple of days after I did. It immediately became apparent that we needed to collaborate because of the depth, importance and scope of this story.
The biggest obstacle has been funding. The entire project has been magical. It has been difficult to schedule interviews. Our People really operate in a “free way.” In order to be most effective, one has to be present in the “moment,” and that is when the “magic” happens. It’s challenging for the film crew, but the flexibility has enabled us to shoot some very powerful interviews and situations.
Are you surprised by the support the film has found from people, especially women, from all over the world?
No, I am not surprised by the support, especially by women. When you come from the heart, it connects with all those who have an open heart. As women, that is part of our essence, our power, our connectedness to the greater whole.
How can people continue to support End of the Line: The Women of Standing Rock?
Go to our web site, www.endofthelinefilm.com, where you can share on your media outlets and contribute your dollars to complete the project. We need 2 more location shoots and funds are needed for postproduction.
What have you observed about the women of Standing Rock?
Indigenous women are fully anchored in our power as women. We are givers of life, we know what our responsibilities are. The “Invader” attacked our men on every level in order to eliminate us. What he didn’t know is that we come from Matrilineal Social Systems, thus our survival.
What were your most profound experiences at Standing Rock?
The coming together of our Indigenous Nations in solidarity and experiencing our Allies from all over the world has been so profound. As the late legal scholar Felix Cohen so aptly stated, “The American Indian is the Miners Canary”.
Now that the camp fire has been put out and most of the Water Protectors have left, what do you think will happen if the new administration or the courts give Enbridge permission to finish the pipeline?
We will re-group; strategies are being put into place as we speak. Having dealt with the “Oppressor” for over 500 years, we understand how deceitful he can be.
There’s a lot going on in Navajo country: Clean Up The Mines is trying to do something about uranium poisoning of water; the efforts at Window Rock AZ to stop rampant fracking. Do you think we might see another Standing Rock there?
Historically, the Great Sioux Nation has always taken the lead in the Indigenous struggle. This gives the rest of us strength. It is my hope and prayer the rest of us will stand up and reclaim our Sovereignty, putting an end to this “government to government” BS and enforce “Nation to Nation” relations, including my People, The Great Navajo Nation.
Would you care to comment on Trump’s election and what that means for native and environmental rights?
In the words of my late husband, “There are no answers in a two party system, at the end they both meet. Nothing changes, the only difference is their spending priorities.” He also said, “I will never give up on the spirit of the human being.” Individually and collectively, we have to realize and exercise our rights and power. No government or corporation can take that from us. This has been yet another call for “People Power.”
Shannon Kring’s interview with you and your late husband Russell Means, as he neared his passing, is one of the most powerful I’ve ever seen. How has his legacy evolved since 2012?
What is taking place at Standing Rock is the “Russell Means Legacy.” He dedicated his entire adult life, over 40 years, to inspire his People (the Indigenous) and the human family to stand up and assert their birthright, freedom in every conceivable way he could. He was a true “Renaissance Man.” He often said, “the first axiom of freedom is you are free to be responsible”.
What would (does) Russell think about what’s happening at Standing Rock?
Without a shadow of a doubt, I know Russell is elated to see what his People are doing at Standing Rock. You cannot be there and experience all that powerful energy without feeling the Spirit of Russell Means and all of our other great defenders.