Russell Means, Indian activist and actor, dies at 72

Mr. Means’s theatrical protests brought national attention to poverty and discrimination suffered by his people.
Marcy Nighswander/Associated Press/file 1989
Mr. Means’s theatrical protests brought national attention to poverty and discrimination suffered by his people.

NEW YORK — Russell C. Means, the charismatic Oglala Sioux who helped revive the warrior image of the American Indian in the 1970s with guerrilla-tactic protests, and, later, movie roles that called attention to the nation’s history of injustices against its indigenous peoples, died Monday at his ranch in Porcupine, S.D., on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was 72.

The cause was esophageal cancer, which had spread recently to his tongue, lymph nodes, and lungs, said Glenn Morris, Mr. Means’s legal representative. Told in the summer of 2011 that the cancer was inoperable, Mr. Means shunned mainstream medical treatments in favor of herbal and other native remedies.

Strapping, ruggedly handsome in buckskins, with a scarred face, piercing dark eyes, and raven braids that dangled to the waist, Mr. Means was, by his own account, a magnet for trouble — addicted to drugs and alcohol in his early years, and later arrested repeatedly in violent clashes with rivals and the law. He was once tried on charges of abetting a murder. He was also shot several times, stabbed once, and imprisoned for a year for rioting.


He styled himself a throwback to ancestors who resisted the westward expansion of the American frontier. With theatrical protests that brought national attention to poverty and discrimination suffered by his people, he became arguably the nation’s best-known Indian since Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.

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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 for 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.

Later, he orchestrated an Indian prayer vigil atop the federal monument of sculptured presidential heads at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, to dramatize Lakota claims to Black Hills land. In 1972, he organized cross-country caravans converging on Washington to protest a century of broken treaties and led an occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He also attacked the ‘‘Chief Wahoo’’ mascot symbol of the Cleveland Indians baseball team, a toothy Indian caricature that he called racist and demeaning. It is still used.

And in a 1973 protest covered by the national media for months, he led hundreds of Indians and white sympathizers in an occupation of Wounded Knee, S.D., site of the 1890 massacre of some 350 Lakota men, women, and children in the last major conflict of the American Indian wars. The protesters demanded strict federal adherence to old Indian treaties and an end to what they called corrupt tribal governments.


In the ensuing 71-day standoff with federal agents, thousands of shots were fired, two Indians were killed, and an agent was paralyzed. Mr. Means and fellow protest leader Dennis Banks were charged with assault, larceny, and conspiracy. But after a long federal trial in Minnesota in 1974, with the defense raising current and historic Indian grievances, the case was dismissed by a judge for prosecutorial misconduct.

Mr. Means later faced other legal battles. In 1976, he was acquitted in a jury trial in Rapid City, S.D., of abetting a murder in a barroom brawl. Wanted on six warrants in two states, he was convicted of involvement in a 1974 riot during a clash between police and Indian activists outside a Sioux Falls, S.D., courthouse. He served a year in a state prison, where he was stabbed by another inmate.

Russell Charles Means was born on the Pine Ridge reservation on Nov. 10, 1939, the oldest of four sons of Harold and Theodora Feather Means. The Anglo-Saxon surname was that of a great-grandfather. When he was 3, the family moved to the San Francisco Bay area, where his father, a welder and auto mechanic, worked in wartime shipyards.

Russell attended public schools in Vallejo and San Leandro High School, where he faced racial taunts, had poor grades, and barely graduated in 1958. He drifted into delinquency, drugs, alcoholism, and street fights. He also attended four colleges, including Arizona State in Tempe, but did not earn a degree. For much of the 1960s he rambled about the West, working as a janitor, printer, cowboy, and dance instructor.

In 1969, he took a job with the Rosebud Sioux tribal council in South Dakota. Within months, he moved to Cleveland and became founding director of a government-financed center helping Native Americans adapt to urban life. He also met Banks, who had recently cofounded the American Indian Movement. In 1970 Mr. Means became the movement’s national director, and over the next decade his actions made him a household name.


In 1985 and 1986, Mr. Means went to Nicaragua to support indigenous Miskito Indians whose autonomy was threatened by the leftist Sandinista government. He reported Sandinista atrocities against the Indians and urged the Reagan administration to aid the victims. Millions in aid went to right-wing contras opposing the Sandinistas, but none to their Indian allies.

In 1987, Mr. Means ran for president. He sought the Libertarian Party nomination but lost to Ron Paul, a former and future congressman from Texas. In 2002, Mr. Means campaigned independently for the New Mexico governorship but was barred procedurally from the ballot.

Mr. Means retired from the American Indian Movement in 1988, but its leaders, with whom he had feuded for years, scoffed, saying he had ‘‘retired’’ six times previously. They generally disowned him and his work, calling him an opportunist out for political and financial gain. In 1989, he told Congress there was ‘‘rampant graft and corruption’’ in tribal governments and federal programs assisting Native Americans.

Mr. Means began his acting career in 1992 with ‘‘The Last of the Mohicans,’’ playing Chingachgook opposite Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe in Michael Mann’s adaptation of the James Fenimore Cooper novel. Over two decades, he appeared in more than 30 films and television productions, including ‘‘Natural Born Killers’’ (1994) and ‘‘Pathfinder’’ (2007). He also recorded CDs, including ‘‘Electric Warrior: The Sound of Indian America’’ (1993), and wrote a memoir, ‘‘Where White Men Fear to Tread’’ (1995, with Marvin J. Wolf).

Mr. Means was married and divorced four times and had nine children. He adopted many others following Lakota tradition. He leaves his fifth wife, Pearl Daniels, whom he married in 1999.

Mr. Means cut off his braids a few months before receiving his cancer diagnosis. It was, he said in an interview in October 2011, a gesture of mourning for his people. In Lakota lore, he explained, the hair holds memories, and mourners often cut it to release those memories, and the people in them, to the spirit world.