Russell Means – Mother Earth Will Retaliate!

Introduction: Russell Means, a Lakota activist with the American Indian Movement (AIM) made the comments below in a famous speech given at the Black Hills International Survival Gathering on the Pine Ridge Reservation on July of 1980. The speech was subsequently printed in Mother Jones Magazine and also in the Book Marxism and Native Americans by Ward Churchill. Means uses the speech both to distance himself from Marxist activism and to outline his own form of indigenous activism. Respect for Mother Earth provides a central theme of the argument. A copy of the full speech an be found here.

Note: Sam D. Gill would later include a critique of this speech in his book Mother Earth: An American Story. In this book, gill argued that the concept of Mother Earth as it is referred to in speeches like that of Means is in fact a modern development rather than a common indigenous belief stretching back into the distant past. Ward Churchill’s blistering response to Gill’s work can be found in his book, Fantasies of the Master Race: Literature, Cinema and the Colonization of American Indians.

Key Facts: It isn’t clear from the text presented here, but when Russell Means speaks of a disaster eliminating those who abuse her, he is specifically suggesting that disaster will NOT eliminate Native Americans (at least not all of them). The revolution he is suggesting is thus the reversal of colonization with its negative effects for both the environment and indigenous peoples.


All European tradition. Marxism included, has conspired to defy the natural order of all things. Mother Earth has been abused, the powers have been abused, and this cannot go on forever. No theory can alter that simple fact. Mother Earth will retaliate, the whole environment will retaliate, and the abusers will be eliminated. Things come full circle, back to where they started. That’s revolution. And that’s a prophecy of my people, of the Hopi people and of other correct peoples.


Comments: The passage here begins with a swipe at Marxism the significance of which is somewhat lost when we focus on this single paragraph. The notion that Marxism no different from other European traditions is actually quite central to the overall speech. It’s also the reason he comes back to the idea of revolution at the end of the paragraph, essentially taking an extra dig at Marxists in those last few  comments. Tthe overall speech contains an extensive critique of Marxism and its impact on indigenous communities.

Mother Earth provides another really fascinating feature of this argument, and I’m going to suggest that Means’ particular wording invites parallel lines of reasoning. He does assert quite literally that Mother Earth herself will ‘retaliate’ for abuse she has suffered at the hands of Europeans, and he is clearly suggesting that her retaliation will be directed at those living as Europeans. It’s interesting to note, however, that he also rephrases his argument about Mother Earth to refer to the ‘environment’ thus broadening its appeal to include those who might not literally believe in Mother Earth.

It’s also important to understand that Means has taken great pains in the rest of the speech to qualify his comments about Europeans in terms other than race. Whether or not that is sufficient to settle concerns over the fairness of his generalizations is one question, but he is not advocating racism here, at least not the straight-forward variety some might see in his wording.

Statements: I would suggest breaking up the argument into the following distinct claims, presented in bold below. I’ve left the initial punctuation alone, which may look odd, but several compound sentences have been broken up into distinct sentences.

[1] All European tradition. Marxism included, has conspired to defy the natural order of all things.

[2] Mother Earth has been abused, the powers have been abused.

[3] this cannot go on forever.

[4] No theory can alter that simple fact.

[5] Mother Earth will retaliate,

[6] the whole environment will retaliate,

[7] the abusers will be eliminated.

[8] Things come full circle, back to where they started.

[9] That’s revolution.

[10] And that’s a prophecy of my people, of the Hopi people and of other correct peoples.

Discussion: This argument raises issues involving Figurative Speech, the Principle of Charity, and Paraphrasing.

Figurative Speech and The Principle of Charity: It is tempting to think of Russell Means’ references to Mother Earth as figurative speech. Those less inclined to think of the earth as a person with a will of her own may well be interested in finding a way out of that interpretation, especially if they are inclined to support the larger themes of the argument (i.e. the notion of an imminent environmental catastrophe). A more charitable interpretation of Means’ argument would thus take him to be referring to deleterious changes in the environment rather than a literal act of retaliation by a person. The problem with this approach is that Means does appear to intend his reference to Mother Earth quite literally. The principle of charity ought not to be used to save an author from himself (or an audience from ideas they find objectionable). So, I think it fair to suggest a literal belief in Mother Earth has a role to play in this argument.

Luckily, Means does seem to provide an extra statement on the topic of retaliation, dropping ‘Mother Earth’ in favor of ‘Environment’ in a second line. This invites a parallel line of reasoning that gives Means the ability to have his cake and eat it too. He can suggest that Mother Earth really is going to strike back at Europeans while outlining a second way of thinking about it in which normal environmental features will have the same effect. It is worth noting, however, that the rest of the speech presents a critique of scientism (as some would phrase it today) which would suggest that strictly mechanical treatment is insufficient to understand the problem. Ultimately, I think Means means to advance the literal vision of retaliation by Mother Earth.

Paraphrasing: A literal interpretation of the word ‘retaliate’ seems a bit inappropriate for description of environmental change in statement 6 (as opposed to the Mother earth argument advanced in statement 5). It would perhaps be best to rewrite this as [change] or [reaction], providing it is understood that the effect is deleterious in either event.

Diagram: The argument appears to present two major themes, one being the abuse of nature (‘Mother Earth’) by Europeans and the negative consequences likely to follow from this, and the second being the nature of revolution.

Means of Mother Earth (cropped)

Evaluation: It will be easy enough to imagine reasons for believing the truth of statements 1 and 2 as well as that of 3 and 4. It will also be possible to suggest that these are over-simplifications of European tradition for statements 1 and 2 and natural processes in statements 3 and 4. Students less inclined to take ‘Mother Earth’ literally may be less inclined to grant the truth of statement 2, but once again statement 1 provides secular alternative. The sweeping conclusionary nature of the terms adds another problem to the evaluation of these statements. One can think of a broad variety of practices destructive to the environment, and many (perhaps most) of these can be traced to some European or Euro-American institutions. Whether or not these constitute defiance of the natural order requires some consideration of the language involved.

The inference from 1-4 to 5 is moderately well supported. If indeed Europeans are indeed abusing Mother Earth and defying the natural order, it it seems natural to expect retaliation. What keeps me from assigning this a higher relevance is a sense that it is really narrative conventions that guide this inference. In practice, it isn’t clear to me how Mother earth will behave in any instance. So, it isn’t really obvious how she will react to abuse. The inference to 6 seems Moderate to strong to me insofar as one can suggest a number of likely negative consequences to destructive treatment of the environment (e.g. acid rain and the Ozone layer in past times, ocean acidification and global warming now, and countless related issues). One could suggest in the abstract that environmental features are sufficiently resilient to prevent such consequences, that social institutions are sufficiently resilient to adapt to the resulting changes, or simply that the inference is beyond our capacity to evaluate. Means is speculating. The speculation may seem intuitively plausible, but it is speculating just the same.

The inference from 5 to 7 is weak at best, owing to the selective nature of the catastrophe Means imagines to be on the horizon.If we start with the assumption that Mother Earth will be making a decision about the matter, it is at least possible to imagine that she will choose to spare some portion of the indigenous population, but there is no clear reason (other than narrative conventions) to suppose that she will.

The inference from 6 to 7 suffers from the same problem, but even more so. It’s one thing to suggest that an environmental disaster looms in humanity’s future and quite another to suggest that it will be selective in its destruction. Even if we grant Means’ argument that it is Europeans who are responsible for the trouble, there is little reason to believe that subsequent negative consequences would be limited to the guilty parties or even that they would spare a portion of the innocent.  Some problems , such as global warming are likely to hit all of humanity.

The argument is unsound.

Final thoughts: I find myself more interesting in Means’ argument here than a straight-foreword logical analysis would seem to suggest. Ultimately, it is the selective nature of the coming disaster that strikes me as unsupported (and likely unsupportable).

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