Russell Means

  • Born: November 10, 1939
  • Died: October 22, 2012
  • Location: Sioux Falls, South Dakota

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In a Jan. 31, 1989 file photo, Russell Means, who heads the American Indian Movement, (AIM) testifies before a special investigative committee of the Senate Select Committee on Capitol Hill, in Washington. 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. (AP Photo/Marcy Nighswander, File)

Indian activist, actor, dies at 72

DIRK LAMMERS, The Associated Press

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — 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.

"The friendship between Russell and I goes back almost 50 years," Banks said late Monday night. "I lost a great friend. But native people lost one of the greatest warriors of modern-day times. Truly, he was a great visionary. He was controversial, yes. But he brought issues to the front page."

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 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."

Oglala Sioux Tribe spokeswoman Donna Salomon said wake services for Means' will be Wednesday on Pine Ridge, and his ashes will be scattered in the Black Hills on Thursday.


Condolence & Memory Journal

I. LOOK UP TO THIS STRONG BRAVE. HE FOUGHT FOR ALL THE RIGHT REASONS. WE MUST FOLLOWS THIS BRAVES FOOTSTEPS. TO MAKE NATIVE AMERICANS GREAT AGAIN. AND BECAUSE OF HIM IT WILL BE. THANK YOU BRAVE RUSSEL MEANS. MAY YOU REST IN PEACE. AND YOU BE FOREVER IN MY MIND. VIRGINIA PEIFFER. ( grandmother honored me when she would call me. BIG WHITE BUFFALO).

Posted by Virginia Peiffer - GLEN BURNIE, MD - Friend   October 15, 2017

I admire a man that has princables & is sincere.
I offer this memorial photo in his honor.

Posted by Dan McKinley - Ringgold, GA - family friend   December 19, 2012

Candle

god bless you,and all you did.lori from pennsylvania

Posted by lori galina - franklin, PA - fan   November 03, 2012

thinking of you

Posted by Wendy - Richmond, VA - fan   November 03, 2012

I remember, I am of the day that revolutions and change was in the courage of those who decided "yes" I can change the world...He was one of those!

Posted by Elaine - Los Angeles, CA - Only in the times   November 02, 2012

Candle

RIP my red brother...see ya on the other side

Posted by Dequi - st charles, MO - no   November 02, 2012

Candle

YOUR ALWAYS IN OUR HEARTS

Posted by mary - AL   November 02, 2012

Candle

Love to you and your family and friends, Russell. May you RIP. Thanks for all you did and all you gave. Godspeed....
Terry Rasmussen

Posted by Terry Rasmussen - Greentown, IN - friend   November 02, 2012

The book "AIM" published back in the 1970's made a difference to this "future Minister" when reading it while still a seminarian. His life (though I and my family are part Eastern Cherokee [proven but not Federally Registered except by U.S. Census) was a point of pride. May the "Great Spirit" Elohim: YEHOVAH~YAHWEH~YESHUA bring the presence of strength into every heart of his extended family and friends. Reverend Robinson-Worley, Nov. 1, 2012

Posted by Reverend Robinson-Worley - St. Louis, MO - Simply a fan from the 1970's   November 01, 2012

Candle

Love to you Russell and your family and friends. You were a great man and the energy and gifts you gave will be remembered and valued always. Thank you for all you gave. You will be missed. Peace

Posted by Bleu Dawn Cooper - Cincinnati, OH - Admirer   November 01, 2012

My thoughts are with Russell's family. He was a brave,powerful, courageous man. He will be missed.

Posted by Pauline Jackson - London UK - Admirer   October 26, 2012

Peva Whoa Not! Good Morning, my brothers and sisters of the Dakota Nations, and the First Nations people, I send blessings to our brother - Russell Means - on his journey across the milky way to God, or rather to "Ma-hey-yot". Our brother, will be remembered around the world in every country and nation, for all indigenous tribes, groups, nations, and people in general. He was one of the bravest Dakota warriors of the 20th and 21st century. My blessings again to his family - Scott Means - and sing again. Please continue to sing your beautiful Dakota songs. A friend in recovery from drugs and alcohol. Karen Stone (Sage Woman) Northern Cheyenne Nation. Peva - Whoa - Not

Posted by Karen Stone - Havre, MT - friend   October 25, 2012

good morning...Am sorry that cancer got to him...But as a leader in many things..he was a strong man in his ways...A.I.M.....he is...one of the strong leaders on our path of life...Mother-earth will look after his bones and his spirit will go to the spirit world where his horse awaits for him...We will see him now and then , from now>>>>>>>To his family , I take my prayers and my indian pipe..I hold it up high for his FAMILY and RUSSELL MEANS....plz keep strong.....hihi

Posted by ian hotomani - canada - friend   October 25, 2012

my thoughts with the family...i too lost my father to cancer ... our men are fighters, our fathers are heros ... heros because they taught us to keep fighting until there is no need to fight anymore... rest easy Means .. and say hi to my dad

Posted by Donna Moose - winnpeg, manitoba, CAN - friend   October 24, 2012

Our condolence goes out to you and your family. You are in a better place now. You get to be with all your old AIM buds. One day we will meet again.

Posted by Geraldine Warledo - weatherford, OK - long time family friend   October 24, 2012

Candle

R.I.P to one of my Native American hero Russell Means. Who was a strong Native American Activist and leader of AIM(american indian movement). I don't know what to say, but that I am shocked that this legend died. Thank you Mr. Means everything you stood for and your strong belief in your native people not just the Lakota people but you believed in ALL Native American tribes. May you Rest In Peace.

Posted by Elsha Black - Kirtland, NM - Admirer   October 24, 2012

Candle

My condolences to the families & the Lakota Nation. May you rest in peace & you will surely be missed by the native people because you stood strong for our rights & belief. Thank you for your courage. We will remember you always.

Posted by Sue Philemon - McCracken Mesa, UT - no   October 24, 2012

My condolences to the family of Russell. He will be remembered for his triumphs and his accomplishments in his life. He will never be forgotten.

Posted by Joe A.Escamilla - Gering, NE - Friend of boxing   October 24, 2012

Russell will not ever be forgotten. He was a strong man that I and many others always admired and looked up to. I wish there were more people like him in this world who would stand up for what they truly believe in. He made a difference and will be greatly missed! I wish his family well, they are in my thoughts and prayers.

Posted by Clair Klug - Welcome, MN - Admirer   October 24, 2012

Monica Hosie, Newtown NorthDakota

Posted by Monica - Newtown, ND - we are all related   October 23, 2012


Family Album

In a Jan. 31, 1989 file photo, Russell Means, who heads the American Indian Movement, (AIM) testifies before a special investigative committee of the Senate Select Committee on Capitol Hill, in Washington. 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. (AP Photo/Marcy Nighswander, File)
In a Feb. 4, 1974 file photo, American Indian Movement (AIM) leader Russell Means, who is challenging incumbent Oglala Sioux Tribal President Richard Wilson in Thursday's election on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, laughs at news report which quoted Wilson as saying he will give AIM 10 days to get off the reservation after he is reelected "or else", in Pine Ridge, S.D
Activist and actor Russell Means speaks at a news conference in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2007, on the Lakota Sioux Indian withdrawal from all treaties with the U.S. government.
In this March 7, 1973, file photo Russell Means, left, tells villagers on the Pine Ridge Reservation at Wounded Knee, SD, that they must continue their fight against the government until their demands are met.
American Indian Movement activist Russell Means walks hand in hand with two unidentified American Indians as they march to Whiteclay, Neb., on Saturday, July 3, 1999 from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota protesting treaty violations, the unsolved murder of two Sioux men and the sale of alcohol in Whiteclay.
A solemn moment is observed before the signing of a statement ending the bloody standoff between federal forces and the American Indian Movement (AIM) at Wounded Knee, S.D., Thursday April 5, 1973. From left are: Russell Means, AIM leader; Kent Frizzell, U.S. assistant attorney general; Chief Tom Bad Cobb and AIM leaders Clyde Bellecourt, Pedro Bisonette and Carter Camp.

Family Album

American Indian Movement (AIM) activist Russell Means addresses the crowd from the steps of the Colorado State Capitol on Saturday morning Oct. 6, 2007. Means was participating in AIM's protest of Denver's Columbus Day Parade.

Community Photos

good morning...Am sorry that cancer got to him...But as a leader in many things..he was a strong man in his ways...A.I.M.....he is...one of the strong leaders on our path of life...Mother-earth will look after his bones and his spirit will go to the spirit world where his horse awaits for him...We will see him now and then , from now>>>>>>>To his family , I take my prayers and my indian pipe..I hold it up high for his FAMILY and RUSSELL MEANS....plz keep strong.....hihi
thinking of you
My small tribute to Russell Means a man among men. I regret not knowing him personally. Sandman
I admire a man that has princables & is sincere. I offer this memorial photo in his honor.