Russell Means dies at 72; American Indian activist helped lead Wounded Knee uprising

October 22, 2012

Russell Means, the self-styled modern Indian warrior who forced international attention on the plight of Native Americans for more than four decades, first through militant protest and later through the power of his own celebrity, died Oct. 22 at his home on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He was 72.

He had complications from lung cancer, said his wife, Pearl Daniel Means. Mr. Means had inoperable esophageal cancer diagnosed last year.

Mr. Means was a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe and emerged from an early life of drugs and poverty to become one of the most famous American Indians since Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Revered by some Indians as a hero, and regarded by others as an unwelcome representative, Mr. Means spent the better part of his life organizing to avenge the injustices done to Native Americans and indigenous people around the world.

With his long, black braids and Native American jewelry — sometimes paired with designer jeans and sunglasses — Mr. Means was a riveting presence at the many high-profile, often violent demonstrations he organized and led. He suffered several gunshot wounds over the years and, in 1976, was acquitted on charges of having aided and abetted a barroom murder.

After years of embracing a theatrical style of civil and uncivil disobedience, Mr. Means began acting in Hollywood fare such as “The Last of the Mohicans” (1992), playing the title role.


American Indian activist Russell Means, shown in a 1989 photo, died Oct. 22 at his home in South Dakota. He was 72. (Marcy Nighswander/AP)

Mr. Means rose to prominence in the early 1970s as an early leader of the American Indian Movement (AIM), an activist group that has been compared to the Black Panthers because of its history of militancy.

Mr. Means’s most noted demonstration, a 71-day armed uprising, began on Feb. 27, 1973, in Wounded Knee, S.D. AIM leaders had chosen the site for its historical resonance. On that land 83 years earlier, U.S. military forces had massacred 350 Lakota people — many of them civilians — in the last major clash of the American-Indian Wars.

With Mr. Means at the vanguard, the protesters seized the small town, occupied homes and took the local church as their stronghold. Armed with a few shotguns and rifles, they set fire to the grocery story and raised an upside-down American flag.

“We’ve got the whole Wounded Knee valley,” Time magazine quoted Mr. Means as saying, “and we definitely are going to hold it until death do us part.”

Hundreds of federal agents swept in to contain the insurrection. The National Guard brought in armored tanks. Two Indians were killed, and one federal agent was paralyzed amid rampant gunfire.

The next year, Mr. Means and another protest organizer, AIM leader Dennis J. Banks, were charged with several counts of assault on government officers, conspiracy and larceny. A judge ultimately dismissed the case, citing misconduct by prosecutors and the FBI.

Critics within the Native American community charged that AIM had allowed an entire village to be destroyed and then made little effort to rebuild it. Mr. Means and his supporters argued that the uprising had fulfilled its purpose.

“What Wounded Knee told the world was that John Wayne hadn’t killed us all,” he wrote in his 1995 autobiography, “Where White Men Fear to Tread,” written with Marvin J. Wolf. “Suddenly billions of people knew we were still alive, still resisting.”

Wounded Knee was not the first or the last of Mr. Means’s organizing efforts. In 1970, with media looking on, he helped lead his first high-profile demonstration — a Thanksgiving Day protest at Plymouth, Mass., in which Native Americans commandeered a replica of the Mayflower ship that had carried the Pilgrims to North America.

In another demonstration, Mr. Means led activists in a protest at Mount Rushmore, the federal monument where the faces of four presidents are carved into the Black Hills of South Dakota. Mr. Means urinated on the image of George Washington.

In 1972, he organized several hundred activists who descended on Washington and occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs in an event that became known as the Trail of Broken Treaties. He served time in prison — where he was stabbed by a fellow inmate — for his role in a riot outside a Sioux Falls, S.D., courthouse in 1974. Over time, he diverged from other AIM and tribal leaders in a series of internecine conflicts.

In the 1980s, Mr. Means shifted his attention to highlight the suffering of indigenous populations outside the United States, notably the Miskito Indians of Nicaragua caught in the bloody conflict between the left-wing Sandinista regime and the contras supported by the United States.

Mr. Means launched a series of unlikely political campaigns. He was the vice-presidential running mate of Larry Flynt in 1984. Later, he sought the Libertarian Party’s nomination for president, losing to former and future Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.). In 2002, he ran as an independent for governor of New Mexico.

In Hollywood, he played a Navajo medicine man in Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” (1994) and provided the voice-over for the Indian girl’s father, Powhatan, in the Disney animated feature “Pocahontas” (1995).

Russell Charles Means was born Nov. 10, 1939, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. His Anglo last name came from a great-grandfather.

Mr. Means grew up in California and at points seemed destined for a life of delinquency and drugs. He worked variously as a cowboy, a day laborer and a circus hand. In 1969, he became acquainted with the nascent AIM.

“Never again would I seek personal approval from white society on white terms,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I would get in the white man’s face until he gave me and my people our just due. With that decision, my whole existence suddenly came into focus.”

Mr. Means was divorced four times. Survivors include his wife of 13 years, Pearl Daniel Means; nine children; and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Last year, as his health declined, he said that after his death he would be “coming back as lightning.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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