Russell C. Means, the Oglala Sioux who used sometimes controversial protests to call attention to the nation’s history of injustices against its indigenous peoples, died on Monday at his ranch in Porcupine, S.D., on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was 72.
In 1969, Means was part of a group of American Indians that occupied Alcatraz Island for a period of 19 months. Later that year, Russell Means was one of the leaders that organized the takeover of Mount Rushmore.
Means, the first national director of the American Indian Movement (AIM) rose to national attention in 1970 by directing a band of Indian protesters who seized the Mayflower II ship replica at Plymouth, Mass., on “Thanksgiving Day.”
In 1972, he participated in the takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Washington, D.C. Later that year came one of the AIM’s most well-known actions, the occupation of the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
In the 1990s Means appeared in films such as “The Last of the Mohicans,” “Natural Born Killers” and was the voice of Powhatan in Disney’s “Pocahontas.” .
Initially diagnosed with esophageal cancer during the summer of 2011, Means opted to forgo Western medicine methods of chemotherapy and radiation to treat his cancer, Native Sun News reported earlier this month. Means fought his cancer using methods more attuned to his Lakota spirituality, including prayer.
Indian Country Today Media Network published a statement made by Means’ son Scott Means:
“My dad now walks among our ancestors. He began his journey to the spirit world at 4:44 a.m. with the morning star, at his home and ranch in Porcupine[, South Dakota]. There will be four opportunities for the people to honor his life; to be announced at a later date. Thank you for your prayers and continued support. We love you. As our dad and husband would say, ‘May the Great Mystery continue to guide and protect the paths of you and your loved ones.’”
According to the AP obitituary, Means credited his organization the American Indian Movement with bringing Native Americans a sense of pride.
He styled himself a throwback to ancestors who resisted the westward expansion of the American frontier and, with theatrical protests that brought national attention to poverty and discrimination suffered by his people, became arguably the nation’s best-known Indian since Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.
But critics, including many Native Americans, called him a tireless self-promoter who capitalized on his angry-rebel notoriety by running quixotic races for the presidency and the governorship of New Mexico, by acting in dozens of movies — notably in the title role of “The Last of the Mohicans” (1992) — and by writing and recording music commercially with Indian warrior and heritage themes.
He rose to national attention as a leader of the American Indian Movement in 1970 by directing a band of Indian protesters who seized the Mayflower II ship replica at Plymouth, Mass., on Thanksgiving Day. The boisterous confrontation between Indians and costumed “Pilgrims” attracted network television coverage and made Mr. Means an overnight hero to dissident Indians and sympathetic whites.
Means was married and divorced four times and had nine children. He also adopted many others following Lakota tradition. His wife Pearl Daniels survives him.