Russell Means, a long-time activist for Native American rights, died this morning, October 22, at his ranch in Porcupine, South Dakota. He was 72. Means was born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota on November 10, 1939. In 1942, his family moved to the San Francisco area.
Means is best known for his life-long efforts to bring attention to the plight of Indigenous Americans. In 1970, he became the first national director of the American Indian Movement (AIM), a civil rights group founded in Minneapolis in 1968. The United States had been mostly oblivious to the dire circumstances in which most Native Americans lived. Even now, for example, Pine Ridge remains one of the most impoverished communities in the country.
Perhaps Means’ most controversial act was a 71-day standoff against federal agents at Wounded Knee on Pine Ridge. Wounded Knee is the site of one of the worst massacres in Native American history: the slaughter of some 350 Sioux Indians on December 29, 1890. As a protest against the deplorable living conditions of Pine Ridge’s residents, Means led a contingent of more than 200 fellow Indians to overthrow the reservation’s leadership. The incident, which began on February 27, 1973, drew in the U.S. Marshals Service, the FBI and thousands of law enforcements officials. Both sides were heavily armed and fired upon one another; killing 2 of the protestors and paralyzing one of the law enforcement agents. After 71 days, Means and the other protestors surrendered. The government charged them with assault and conspiracy, but dropped the indictments the following year.
Means continued his activism, marching on Washington, D.C., in 1978 to protest anti-Indian legislation, including the forced sterilization of Indian women. Called the “Longest Walk,” Means led hundreds of people from San Francisco to Washington, the largest protest at the time. Immediately afterwards, the House of Representatives passed a resolution stating that national policy was to protect the rights of Indians; to believe, express and exercise their traditional religions, including but not limited to access to sites; use and possession of sacred objects; and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.
Means highlighted the negativity associated with many sports team Indian mascots. He joined a $9 million lawsuit against the Cleveland Indians baseball team for its “Chief Wahoo” mascot, calling it racist and derogatory. In 1983, Cleveland settled out of court for a mere $35,000. Means sought the Libertarian Party’s nomination for president in the 1988 presidential campaign, but lost to Rep. Ron Paul. Means retired from AIM in 1988 and, four years later, began a new career as an actor when he was cast in “The Last of the Mohicans.” He also appeared in “Natural Born Killers,” as the “Old Indian,” starred as “Sitting Bull” in the CBS mini-series “Buffalo Girls,” and provided voice talent for Disney’s animated film “Pocahontas.”
Means never gave up his mission to emphasize the struggles of Native Americans and even point out disparities in traditional American history. In 1992, he stopped a scheduled Columbus Day parade in Denver, which had been meant to celebrate Columbus’ “discovery of America.” Means and his constituents demanded the holiday be renamed “Indigenous Peoples Day.”
Like most people who lead a public life, Means became introspective in his later years. “No one except Hollywood stars and very rich Texans wore Indian jewelry,” Means said about AIM. 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.” In his autobiography, “Where White Men Fear to Tread,” he admitted his fragilities – especially his battles with alcoholism, a common scourge among Native Americans – but also accentuated his successes.
In August 2011, Means announced that he had inoperable throat cancer and told the Associated Press that he would forgo standard medical treatment in favor of traditional Indian remedies. Oglala Sioux spokeswoman Donna Saloman said wake services for Means will be held Wednesday on Pine Ridge and that his ashes will be spread in the Black Hills on Thursday.