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.
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.