Russell Means: American Indian activist and actor

 

Russell Means, it was said, was the best known American Indian since Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. The Washington Post called him "the biggest, baddest, meanest, angriest, most famous Indian activist of the late 20th century" He used militant protest and violence, politics, and even showbusiness to further the cause. He was as divisive as he was charismatic. Above all however, Means' life was a reminder of the terrible injustices visited upon his people by the white men who built the United States.

Born on the Lakota Sioux Reservation at Pine Ridge, South Dakota, Means moved as a young boy to California, where his father worked in the Second World War shipyards. He spent much of the 1960s as a drifter across the West, before moving back in 1969 to South Dakota, where his life took shape and purpose.

That year he met Dennis Banks, a founder of AIM, the American Indian Movement that had been founded in 1968. AIM was a creature of those turbulent times, inspired by the civil rights movement that had achieved such gains for African Americans. By 1971, Means was its national co-ordinator. The movement, he said, had finally provided him "a way to be a real Indian."

With AIM, Means was involved in several spectacular protests that drew national, and then international, attention to the Indian cause. In 1970, he and other activists briefly took over Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota, sacred to the Sioux, where he urinated over the carved head of George Washington. The act, he declared, symbolised what "most Indians feel about the faces chiselled out of our holy land."

On Thanksgiving Day that year, AIM members occupied the Mayflower II, replica of the ship that brought the Pilgrim Fathers to America, in Plymouth, Massachusetts. In 1972 Means was a leader of a cross country "caravan" to Washington DC that culminated in an occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

His and AIM's most famous operation came the following year with the seizure of the hamlet of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation, the site of the 1890 massacre of Sioux men women and children by the US 7th Cavalry that is generally held to mark the end of the 19th century Indian wars. Originating in an internal tribal dispute, the protest turned into a confrontation between the occupiers and hundreds of US marshals and FBI agents, backed by armoured personnel carriers.

Means was later criticised for his militant ways, which critics claimed divided the Indian movement and alienated potential sympathisers. But he was unrepentant. "Sometimes there has to be violence to force the white man to listen. If we seize Wounded Knee, either we'll force the federal government to kill us all like they did 83 years ago or they … negotiate and meet our demands."

The stand-off, lasting 71 days and during which two people died, ended peacefully. Means and scores of fellow activists were, however, indicted and put on trial, only for the case to be dismissed because of prosecutorial misconduct.

Throughout the 1970s high-profile activism and various tangles with the law, including a one-year jail term for rioting, kept Means in the headlines. But his focus began to switch to politics. In 1983 he agreed to be the running mate of Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flint in the latter's bid for the White House. Four years later he ran in his own right for the Libertarian Party nomination, but was defeated by Ron Paul, the Congressman who himself would later twice seek the presidency as a Republican.

In 1988 he left AIM and concentrated on acting. His craggy looks and long, black braided hair, combined with his speaking ability, made him a natural. He appeared in dozens of films and TV shows, including The Last of the Mohicans in 1992 and the 1995 Disney animation Pocahontas, in which he was the voice for the Indian chief, father of the heroine of the title.

In Means' later years, the fortunes of the Indians slowly improved. Their number had risen from barely 500,000 in 1900 to some 5.2m in 2010, according to that year's national census, while casino operations were generating new income. But reservations were still scarred by poverty and alcoholism, and Means never gave up he fight, vowing to be remembered "not as an activist but as an American Indian patriot."

His people "were digging into trash now for food and whatever," he said in a 2010 interview, his voice cracking with emotion. "When I see that … I know who my ancestors are and we're reduced to that." The following year he was diagnosed with inoperable cancer but refused radiation treatment and chemotherapy, insisting on traditional native American Indian remedies. "I'm not going to argue with the Great Mystery," he declared. "Lakota belief is that death is a change of worlds. And I believe like my dad believed."

Rupert Cornwell

Russell Charles Means, American Indian activist and actor: born Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota 10 November 1939; married five times (nine children); died Porcupine, South Dakota 22 October 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent