Russell Means was probably the most controversial Native American since the 19th century Indian Wars. He died of throat cancer on his ranch at Porcupine, South Dakota, on Monday morning, just one day after George McGovern, the South Dakota politician who championed the rights of Means’ Oglala tribe. He was 20 days short of his 73rd birthday.
Means was born in Wanblee, in the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1939. His family moved to the San Francisco Bay area when Means was 3. In his twenties, Means drifted from reservation to reservation across the West, searching for work and a connection to his own heritage. His first brush with activism came in 1964 when he and his father participated in the occupation of Alcatraz Island, not the famous 1970 occupation attended by a very young Benjamin Bratt, his siblings and mother, but the first occupation. At that time, 40 Native Americans reminded the United States government of their treaty obligation to return to native peoples any land no longer being used by the government. Alcatraz prison had closed in 1963. Neither occupation succeeded in getting the island returned to Native control.
The American Indian Movement was founded in 1968 in Minnesota by Dennis Banks, George Mitchell, Herb Powless, Clyde Bellecourt, Harold Goodsky, Eddie Benton-Banai and other urban Native Americans. Means joined the group almost immediately, bringing to it the experiences of reservation life.
Means also brought a talent for staging events that attracted media attention, and quickly outshone the founding members. In the fall of 1970, Means led the Thanksgiving occupation of the replica Mayflower in Boston and the occupation of Mount Rushmore. In 1972, he led the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington that resulted in the destruction of confidential records and $2 million in damages. AIM was getting a bad reputation.
The most famous and infamous of AIM’s occupations was the 1973 occupation of the town of Wounded Knee on Means’ own Pine Ridge Reservation. It was near the site of the 1890 massacre, which had been brought to the conscience of America with the 1970 publication of Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. The 200 Native Americans who occupied the tiny town were armed, as were the federal agents who came to evict them. An FBI agent was shot and paralyzed and later died of complications; a Cherokee and Oglala Lakota (Sioux) were shot and killed. Ray Robinson, a civil rights activist, disappeared. His body has never been found. The town was so badly damaged it has never been rebuilt and reoccupied.
In 1974, Means resigned from AIM to run for the presidency of his tribe. He lost by 200 votes in an election many claimed was rigged by intimidation by the private militia’s of incumbent president Richard Wilson. Means turned his activism to the rights of all native peoples. He worked with the United Nations on the creation of the International Indian Treaty Council in 1977, while continuing to work to better conditions on the Pine Ridge.
In 1999, Means became involved in calling for justice in the case of murdered Oglala Lakota member Annie Mae Asquash in 1975. She had been suspected of being an FBI informant. AIM had avoided any calls for investigations into her death, so Means’ presence changed the dynamics. He and Robert Pictou-Branscombe, a Canadian cousin of Asquash, accused Arlo Looking Cloud and John Graham of the murder. They were indited in 2003 and convicted in 2004 and 2010. A third accused, Theda Nelson Clark, was not indited because she was in a nursing home.
Just as there has been a long-running controversy over how to refer to African-Americans, there has been one over references to indigenous Americans. Means preferred the term “American Indian” claiming that it did not refer to confusion over whether or not early explorers thought they had landed in India, but derived from the Italian “in Dio,” meaning “in God.” It actually makes sense since Columbus thought he had landed off the coast of China, not India. He also believed that using the term “Indian” which had been used in two centuries of treaties and government documents, would prevent attempts by the government to play semantics with legal claims by native peoples.
In 1992, Means turned his attention to an acting career, making a spectacular debut as the title character in The Last of the Mohicans, opposite Daniel Day Lewis and Madeline Stowe. He appeared in, both physically and as a voice actor, in 35 films and television projects, the last an untitled Christian Camargo adaptation of Chekov’s The Seagull starring Katie Holmes and Jean Reno.
In 2011, Means announced that he was suffering from esophageal cancer. He chose Native American and alternative treatments over conventional medicine. Russell Means was married four times and fathered a total of ten children. He is survived by his widow Pearl Means, and his children.
Russell Means was an in-your-face activist who hated the media and didn’t play well with others, evidenced by the way the elected leaders of the Rosebud and Cheyenne River Sioux denounced any association between Means and their tribes. Sometimes, his personality got in the way of his activism, but there was never any doubt about his passion for the rights of native peoples. Means had seen and lived the whole spectrum of native life in America, from the isolation and discrimination suffered by those who left the reservation to the degrading poverty and lack of simple human services on it. Somehow, the respect non-natives felt for the Indian high steel men, the people who made our skyscrapers possible back in the late 1920s and 1930s with their fearless attitude about walking along twelve-inch wide steel beams a hundred feet in the air, never translated into acceptance in mainstream America.