This week, South Dakota lost two legends: Senator George McGovern (D) and longtime Lakota activist and American Indian Movement (AIM) leader Russell Means.
On the surface, the two men could hardly have been more different.
The son of a Methodist minister from Avon, SD, McGovern served with distinction as a pilot in WWII, earned his PhD from Northwestern University, and became successively a U.S. Representative, U.S. Senator, and Democratic candidate for U.S. President.
Means, on the other hand, was born to Oglala Lakota parents in Pine Ridge Village on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation but spent his formative years in San Francisco before becoming the first national director of the American Indian Movement (AIM).
Their means (pun not intended) were vastly different as well. McGovern used the power grassroots party organization and electoral office. He almost singlehandedly revitalized a moribund South Dakota Democratic Party, and during his tenure in national office he became a constant, courageous voice of opposition to the Vietnam War.
Means, on the other hand, preferred agitprop and guerrilla protest. He staged numerous brilliant demonstrations with the AIM, including the Thanksgiving Day seizure of the Mayflower II in Boston, the 1972 occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., and that most notorious of Indian protests, the 1973 standoff between AIM activists and federal marshals at Wounded Knee that lasted seventy-one days and took the lives of two Indian occupiers and one FBI agent. (McGovern actually visited Wounded Knee early in the course of the occupation, seeking to broker a deal between the opposing sides.)
On reflection, however, it is perhaps fitting that two giants of recent South Dakota history should pass away within twenty-four hours of one another.
To start, both were in many ways unsuccessful. What some described as Means’ egomania and his willingness to resort to violence—he was tried for abetting a murder in 1976, survived several shootings, and was stabbed while serving a sentence for rioting in 1974, quite apart from the shootings at Wounded Knee II—probably alienated many potential supporters. Meanwhile, McGovern was soundly thrashed in his 1972 bid for the Presidency against Richard Nixon, leading even some Democrats to accuse him of being “too progressive for national office.”
But in other ways, they were both successful beyond the dreams of most warriors for peace and justice.
However colorful his personality may have been, Means remained committed to the end of his days to equal justice for Native Americans and for indigenous peoples everywhere. And even if stunts like Wounded Knee II did not bring an end to poverty and institutional racism on Pine Ridge and other reservations, Means and his AIM comrades catapulted Native Americans out of supposed extinction and straight into the national consciousness.
As for McGovern, he may not have won the Presidency, but in the wake of Watergate one can only imagine him shaking his head, chiding sadly, “I told you so!” Rather than decline into bitterness and irrelevance, however, he used his political capital to become a champion for food justice, helping to found the U.N.’s World Food Programme and becoming the first U.N. Global Ambassador on World Hunger.
In short, both men suffered seemingly enormous setbacks. But they did not let those setbacks stand in the way of the continued fight for justice for all people. And imperfect as they both were, they taught the U.S. and the world not to underestimate little old South Dakota. As we press forward without them, it is up to us now to study their triumphs, to learn from their defeats, and to carry on their sizable legacies.
–Tom Emanuel is the Executive Director of the South Dakota Peace & Justice Center