Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Notable deaths in South Dakota

Two men from very different segments of South Dakota society died this week. Yet, different as their respective milieux were, both men were rebels of a sort.

Russell Means, a member of the Lakota and leader in the American Indian movement died yesterday, just a few days after the family of Senator George McGovern, the Democratic nominee for President in 1972, announced his death in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Read the NYT coverage of Means' death here, of McGovern's death here.

The New York Times headline for McGovern's obituary was "A Prairie Liberal, Trounced but Never Silenced." It recounts his life with frequent references to his roots in South Dakota, including this paragraph:
A slender, soft-spoken minister’s son newly elected to Congress — his father was a Republican — Mr. McGovern went to Washington as a 34-year-old former college history teacher and decorated bomber pilot in World War II. He thought of himself as a son of the prairie as well, with a fittingly flat, somewhat nasal voice and a brand of politics traceable to the Midwestern progressivism of the late 19th century.
Elsewhere the obituary, by David Rosenbaum, quotes extensively from a 2005 interview with McGovern:
I always thought of myself as a good old South Dakota boy who grew up here on the prairie. My dad was a Methodist minister. I went off to war. I have been married to the same woman forever. I’m what a normal, healthy, ideal American should be like.

But we probably didn’t work enough on cultivating that image. ... We were more interested in ending the war in Vietnam and getting people out of poverty and being fair to women and minorities and saving the environment.

It was an issue-oriented campaign, and we should have paid more attention to image.
I don’t think the American people had a clear picture of either Nixon or me. I think they thought that Nixon was a strong, decisive, tough-minded guy, and that I was an idealist and antiwar guy who might not attach enough significance to the security of the country.

The truth is, I was the guy with the war record, and my opposition to Vietnam was because I was interested in the nation’s well-being.
The story also discusses McGovern's early years, as well as his early leadership in South Dakota politics for the Democratic party. McGovern was born in Avon, South Dakota, now a town of about 600, in 1922. His family moved to Mitchell, South Dakota when McGovern was six years old. McGovern's father, a Methodist minister and Republican, was a strict disciplinarian who tried to prevent his four children from playing sports and going to the cinema.

After the war, McGovern earned graduate degrees in history from Northwestern University, eventually becoming a professor at Dakota Wesleyan, his alma mater. But he soon left that job to become executive secretary of the state's Democratic Party, "almost single-handedly reviv[ing] a moribund operation in a heavily Republican state."
Month after month, he drove across South Dakota in a beat-up sedan, making friends and setting up county organizations. In 1956, gaining the support of farmers who had become New Deal Democrats during the Depression, he was elected to Congress himself, defeating an overconfident incumbent Republican.
McGovern thus became the first Democratic congressman from South Dakota in more than 20 years. He remained a standard-bearer for liberal causes his entire life, with a particular focus on food assistance for the poor.

Russell Means was a South Dakota renegade of a different type. Here's the lede from the New York Times obituary of Means, who died at the age of 72 of esophageal cancer:
Russell C. Means, the charismatic Oglala Sioux who helped revive the warrior image of the American Indian in the 1970s with guerrilla-tactic protests that called attention to the nation’s history of injustices against its indigenous peoples, died on Monday at his ranch in Porcupine, S.D., on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

* * *
He styled himself a throwback to ancestors who resisted the westward expansion of the American frontier. With theatrical protests that brought national attention to poverty and discrimination suffered by his people, he became arguably the nation’s best-known Indian since Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.
An editorial in today's paper, The Seige of Wounded Knee, includes this paragraph about the significance of Russell Means' life and legacy:
The country is still good at ignoring Indians, but for a time Mr. Means and the American Indian Movement punctured that invisibility. By raising hell for 71 days in one of the most remote corners of the continent, on behalf of an abused and forgotten people, he and his allies captured the attention of the world. “It was pretty much all over three-and-a-half years after Alcatraz,” wrote Paul Chaat Smith, an American Indian writer and associate curator at the National Museum of the American Indian, “when exhausted, hungry rebels signed an agreement that ended the Wounded Knee occupation. There were other actions and protests, but none came close to capturing the imagination of the Indian world or challenging American power.”
Here's to the memories of two very courageous South Dakotans, even if Means might not have wanted to think of himself as such (a South Dakotan, that is).

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