Russell Means didn’t get an invitation to Saturday’s appreciation dinner for the original Custer County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Reserves, but given his role in the unit’s creation perhaps he should have.
“If they would let me be the keynote, I’ll … sure go,” Means said by telephone Thursday from Porcupine.
The American Indian Movement leader who was at the center of the 1973 Custer County courthouse riot is critical of the decision to deputize community volunteers in the wake of the riot, calling it a “racist” overreaction.
“The creation of legal vigilantes is somewhat childish,” he said.
As might be expected, Means also takes an alternate view of the cause of that historic riot, which eventually led to him serving 30 days in the Custer County jail. He said footage from a documentary film crew that was following Dennis Banks that day proves the riot erupted when Sarah Bad Heart Bull was beaten by law enforcement personnel as she attempted to enter the courthouse to talk to prosecutors about the stabbing death of her son, Wesley. Banks and Means were upstairs in the courthouse at the time, trying to convince prosecutors they had new evidence that justified a charge of first-degree murder in that case.
“We orchestrated it? Yeah, we orchestrated getting clubbed and beaten. It was definitely not planned. We notified the news media as we always did with our events,” he said. “What we didn’t know was that there were armed and fortified riot police upstairs and downstairs.”
Bad Heart Bull was among the many arrested that day, and her trial was moved to Sioux Falls, where protestors also damaged the courthouse. Means’ trial on riot charges was moved to Kennebec, but in a plea agreement he pled guilty to a reduced misdemeanor charge.
While the exact facts of the riot may be lost to history, today both sides can agree that Custer is a different place.
“Every June, I do business in Custer and I’m treated well,” Means said. “And people tell me they don’t experience racism there now.”