George McGovern and Russell Means were South Dakotans, and if you came of thinking age in the early 1970s, they were among the men you thought might change the world.
The former U.S. senator and Democratic presidential candidate and the Sioux Indian activist, very different men linked by the plains and hills of the Dakotas, passed away within a day of each other last week, the world maybe not changed, but perhaps nudged a little.
McGovern died last Sunday at age 90. He was the proof that in the second half of the 20th century, the term “prairie populist” wasn’t just an alliterative turn of phrase for half-clever reporters to bandy about.
The Populist movement sprang from Great Plains farmers’ resentment and anger against the banks, railroads and grain mills that controlled their fates in the 1870s and 1880s and a belief that the combined wisdom of common men and women was sufficient to deal with almost anything.
Populism wasn’t a terribly successful anti-establishment movement — though it lasted longer than the Occupy Wall Street movement — but it influenced the thinking of folks like McGovern, who grew up on the poor side in Avon and Mitchell, towns on the open prairie surrounded by little other than wheat and sky.
The young man remembered feeling hunger — and seeing it around him — during the years of the Great Depression. Fighting to end hunger around the world became the defining mission of his life, even though he’ll be best-remembered for his anti-war stance as the Democratic candidate for president in 1972.
He lost New York — he lost everywhere but Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. — but nearly 3 million New Yorkers voted for him.
The son of a Methodist minister, McGovern that year preached a message of peace and shared connection across the human family. He was beaten by an incumbent — yes, crafty Richard Nixon — who was willing to break the law to ensure a victory few doubted he would achieve in the first place.
McGovern stayed active in fighting to end world hunger until very near the end, his name appearing on fundraising letters for famine relief. He appeared at the University at Albany as recently as 2009.
McGovern deserves a spot beside Jimmy Carter among former presidents — or presidential aspirants — who led exemplary lives of service after they left politics.
Means, the Oglala Sioux activist, died just a day later, at age 72, near the Sioux reservation lands where he’d made both stands and grandstands.
Means had more fire in his belly and his voice than McGovern, and it was still there when he spoke at Skidmore College in 1992, after he achieved a different kind of celebrity, having taken up playing Indians in the movies. Native Americans I’ve known often strike me as remarkably serene, but Means was known more for his anger.
Means, with his long black hair tied back in traditional braids, in the early 1970s was a leader and often the spokesman for the American Indian Movement, the spiritual and political organization of Native Americans offended about how natives have been treated for the preceding 500 years.
Hitler is said to have seen the decimation of native populations during the European conquest
of North America as a model for how the Nazis might conquer and control the Slavic countries of Eastern Europe.
It’s a disturbing notion but not wrong. Means and others in AIM wanted to be sure that the rest of us don’t forget whose sins Custer died for.