Archive for Monday, October 22, 2012

Longtime Indian activist Russell Means dies at 72

Russell Means

Russell Means

October 22, 2012


Previous coverage

Means spirited: American Indian actor and activist honored at Haskell film festival

Russell Means' Lakota Sioux name (Oyate Wacinyapin) translates to "Works for the People."

It's fair to say the American Indian activist and actor has earned that designation.

"I've made a difference in everything I've participated in," Means says.

Russell Means, who headed the American Indian Movement, (AIM) testifies before a special investigative committee of the Senate Select Committee on Capitol Hill, in Washington in a Jan. 31, 1989 file photo. Means, a former American Indian Movement activist who helped lead the 1973 uprising at Wounded Knee, reveled in stirring up attention and appeared in several Hollywood films, died early Monday, Oct. 22, 2012, at his ranch Zzxin Porcupine, S.D., Oglala Sioux Tribe spokeswoman Donna Solomon said. He was 72.

Russell Means, who headed the American Indian Movement, (AIM) testifies before a special investigative committee of the Senate Select Committee on Capitol Hill, in Washington in a Jan. 31, 1989 file photo. Means, a former American Indian Movement activist who helped lead the 1973 uprising at Wounded Knee, reveled in stirring up attention and appeared in several Hollywood films, died early Monday, Oct. 22, 2012, at his ranch Zzxin Porcupine, S.D., Oglala Sioux Tribe spokeswoman Donna Solomon said. He was 72.

— Russell Means spent a lifetime as a modern American Indian warrior. He railed against broken treaties, fought for the return of stolen land and even took up arms against the federal government.

A onetime leader of the American Indian Movement, he called national attention to the plight of impoverished tribes and often lamented the waning of Indian culture. After leaving the movement in the 1980s, the handsome, braided activist was still a cultural presence, appearing in several movies.

Means, who died Monday from throat cancer at age 72, helped lead the 1973 uprising at Wounded Knee — a bloody confrontation that raised America's awareness about the struggles of Indians and gave rise to a wider protest movement that lasted for the rest of the decade.

Before AIM, there were few national advocates for American Indians. Means was one of the first to emerge. He sought to restore Indians' pride in their culture and to challenge a government that had paid little attention to tribes in generations. He was also one of the first to urge sports teams to do away with Indian names and mascots.

"No one except Hollywood stars and very rich Texans wore Indian jewelry," Means said, recalling the early days of the movement. And there were dozens, if not hundreds, of athletic teams "that in essence were insulting us, from grade schools to college. That's all changed."

AIM was founded in the late 1960s to demand that the government honor its treaties with American Indian tribes. The movement eventually faded away, Means said, as Native Americans became more self-aware and self-determined.

There were plenty of American Indian activists before AIM, but it became the "radical media gorilla," said Paul DeMain, editor of News from Indian Country, a national newspaper focused on tribal affairs.

"If someone needed help, you called on the American Indian Movement, and they showed up and caused all kind of ruckus and looked beautiful on a 20-second clip on TV that night," DeMain said.

Means and AIM co-founder Dennis Banks were charged in 1974 for their role in the Wounded Knee uprising in which hundreds of protesters occupied the town on the site of the 1890 Indian massacre. Protesters and federal authorities were locked in a standoff for 71 days and frequently exchanged gunfire. Before it was over, two tribal members were killed and a federal agent seriously wounded.

After a trial that lasted several months, a judge threw out the charges on grounds of government misconduct.

Other protests led by Means included an American Indian prayer vigil on top of Mount Rushmore and the seizure of a replica of the Mayflower on Thanksgiving Day in Plymouth, Mass.

But Means' constant quest for the spotlight raised doubts about his motives. Critics who included many fellow tribe members said his main interest was building his own notoriety.

Means said his most important accomplishment was the proposal for the Republic of Lakotah, a plan to carve out a sovereign Indian nation inside the United States. He took the idea all the way to the United Nations, even though it was ignored by tribal governments closer to home, including his own Oglala Sioux leaders, with whom he often clashed.

For decades, Means was dogged by questions about whether the group promoted violence, especially the 1975 slaying of a woman in the tribe and the gun battles with federal agents at Wounded Knee.

Authorities believe three AIM members shot and killed Annie Mae Aquash on the Pine Ridge reservation on the orders of someone in AIM's leadership because they suspected she was an FBI informant.

Two activists — Arlo Looking Cloud and John Graham — were both eventually convicted of murder. The third has never been charged.

Also in 1975, murder charges were filed against Means and Dick Marshall, an AIM member, in the shooting death of a Sioux man at a saloon in the town of Scenic, S.D. Marshall served 24 years in prison. Means was acquitted.

His activism extended to tribes beyond the United States. In the mid-1980s, Means traveled to Nicaragua to support indigenous Miskito Indians who were fighting the Sandinista government.

Born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Means grew up in the San Francisco area and battled drugs and alcohol as a young man before becoming an early leader of AIM.

With his rugged good looks and long, dark braids, he also was known for a handful of Hollywood roles, most notably in the 1992 movie "The Last of the Mohicans," in which he portrayed Chingachgook alongside Daniel Day-Lewis' Hawkeye.

He also appeared in the 1994 film "Natural Born Killers," voiced Chief Powhatan in the 1995 animated film "Pocahontas" and guest starred in 2004 on the HBO series "Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Means also ran unsuccessfully for the Libertarian nomination for president in 1988 and briefly served as a vice presidential candidate in 1984 on the ticket of Hustler publisher Larry Flynt.

Means always considered himself a Libertarian and couldn't believe that anyone would want to call themselves a Republican or a Democrat.

"It's just unconscionable that America has become so stupid," he said.

Means often refused interviews and verbally blasted journalists who showed up to cover his public appearances. Instead, he chose to speak to his fan base through YouTube videos and blog posts on his website.

Means recounted his life in the book "Where White Men Fear to Tread." He said he pulled no punches in the autobiography, admitting to his frailties but also acknowledging his successes.

"I tell the truth, and I expose myself as a weak, misguided, misdirected, dysfunctional human being I used to be," he said.

Means died at his ranch in in Porcupine, S.D. He announced in August 2011 that he had inoperable throat cancer and told The Associated Press that he would forego mainstream medicine in favor of traditional American Indian remedies.

Means' death came a day after former Sen. George McGovern died in Sioux Falls at the age of 90. McGovern had traveled to Wounded Knee with then-Sen. James Abourezk during the takeover to try to negotiate an end to hostilities.

"I've lost two good friends in a matter of two to three days," Abourezk said Monday. "I don't pretend to understand it."


Liberty275 5 years, 7 months ago

Two day, two death of important Americans. Everyone has to go, but it's sad to see one that meant something go. I hope he went where he wanted to go.

riverdrifter 5 years, 7 months ago

You have to go back to Crazy Horse to find such a Sioux leader. To my friend Leslie from Pocupine, my heart goes out to you as I know you have been a friend of Russell since you were a kid. "This is the lodge of Crazy Horse." -Touch The Clouds

Kat Christian 5 years, 7 months ago

Russ may have thought he was a dsyfunctional person, but to me he was a kind man with a gentle heart. May the Great Spirit be his guiding light into his new journey. My tears fall for him tonight from the shock of opening up the LJW and seeing his picture on the front page.

ironhead80 5 years, 7 months ago

I'm sorry for your loss, to the families of this man. Mr.Mean's never spoke for me, being a American Indian. There were better American Indian people who passed on, than Mr.Means. TO BAD SO SAD!

juma 5 years, 7 months ago

After Wounded Knee, I attended a talk by Means at the UofC campus in Boulder. It was amusing and confusing to me, a young student, that his drink of choice to keep up his ranting and raving against the 'white man' was Coca-Cola. Maybe water would be a more natural choice?

Mike Ford 5 years, 7 months ago

I met Mr. Means a couple of times in Lawrence. Over the years I was fortunate to meet him, Dennis Banks and Clyde Bellecourt, along with Adam Fortunate Eagle and LaDonna Harris. Mr. Means was relentless in his desire to shine the light on the historical ignorance of the majority culture in the US and the inequities that came from federal policies based on this historical ignorance. Mr. Means was against the SLT and numorous other projects offensive to Indian Country. I remember standing at the edge of Wounded Knee in June 2000 looking over the road to the south where the FBI set up in 1973 and 1974 where Oscar Bear Runner stood with his feather adorned rifle overlooking the valley and I felt such reverence and power in a place that began with american Genocide on December 29, 1890. I remember looking at the Oregonian while visiting my brother on Thanksgiving, 1997 or 1997 when the police used mace on the Thanksgiving protesters at Plymouth, Massachusetts injuring elderly Wampanoag people who were protesting the Thanksgiving holiday that was celebrated after the Wampanoag people were beaten,killed, and enslaved by the Pilgrims in the 1670's. Russell Means made his mark speaking at the statue of Massasoit in 1970, the year I was born, calling Thanksgiving a genocidal holiday. Mr. Means family was relocated to Cleveland, OH, initially to the ghetto area on Euclid Avenue which is the Troost Avenue of Cleveland during the BIA Relocation Policy of that time. Mr. Means spoke up and changed that policy of the BIA. I remember taking US 20 from Buffalo, NY to Chicago to avoid toll roads and going down Euclid Avenue near downtown Cleveland in 2003 returning to Lawrence from pow wows in Quebec and Ontario. Mr. Means mentioned Euclid Avenue in Where White Men Fear to Tread which I own and he autographed. I saw him a couple of years ago at a Haskell pow wow incognito. It was a such an honor to see the lifelong concept of resistence that he spoke to. He inspired me. Pilamiyayelo Mr. Means. Washte.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 7 months ago

RIP, sir. You were brave when it counted.

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