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Advertise on NYTimes.com Russell Means, Who Clashed With Law as He Fought for Indians, Is Dead at 72
United Press International Russell Means, left, and Dennis Banks in 1973, when they led a protest at Wounded Knee, S.D. By ROBERT D. McFADDEN Published: October 22, 2012 155 Comments FACEBOOK TWITTER GOOGLE+ E-MAIL SHARE PRINT REPRINTS
Russell C. Means, the charismatic Oglala Sioux who helped revive the warrior image of the American Indian in the 1970s with guerrilla-tactic protests that called attention to the nationâ€™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.
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Ed Andrieski/Associated Press Protesting at a Columbus Day Parade in Denver in 2000. Enlarge This Image
Marcy Nighswander/Associated Press Russell Means in 1989. Readers’ Comments Share your thoughts. Post a Comment » Read All Comments (155) » 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 had already resolved to shun mainstream medical treatments in favor of herbal and other native remedies.
Strapping, and 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 tried for abetting a murder, 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.
But critics, including many Indians, 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 a principal role in “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, S.D., 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 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 news 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 his 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 the 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.
Mr. Means also survived several gunshots — one in the abdomen fired during a scuffle with an Indian Affairs police officer in North Dakota in 1975, one that grazed his forehead in what he called a drive-by
assassination attempt on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1975, and one in the chest fired by another would-be assassin on another South Dakota reservation in 1976.
Undeterred, he led a caravan of Sioux and Cheyenne into a gathering of 500 people commemorating the centennial of Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s last stand at Little Big Horn in Montana in 1876, the nation’s most famous defeat of the Indian wars. To pounding drums, Mr. Means and his followers mounted a speaker’s platform, joined hands and did a victory dance, sung in Sioux Lakota, titled “Custer Died for Your Sins.”
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 at 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 Indians adapt to urban life. He also met Mr. Banks, who had recently co-founded 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, he 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 some anti-Sandinista groups, but a leader of the Miskito Indian rebels, Brooklyn Rivera, said his followers had not received any of that aid.
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 that there was “rampant graft and corruption” in tribal governments and federal programs assisting American Indians.
Mr. Means began his acting career in 1992 with “The Last of the Mohicans,” Michael Mann’s adaptation of the James Fenimore Cooper novel, in which he played Chingachgook opposite Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe. 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).
He was married and divorced four times and had nine children. He also adopted many others following Lakota tradition. His fifth marriage, to Pearl Daniels, was in 1999, and she survives him.
Mr. Means cut off his braids a few months before receiving his cancer diagnosis. It was, he said in an interview last October, 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.
Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting. A version of this article appeared in print on October 23, 2012, on page B19 of the New York edition with the headline: Russell Means, Who Clashed With Law As He Fought for Indians, Is Dead at 72. E-MAIL SHARE Get 50% Off The New York Times & Free All Digital Access.
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Jon PolitoHollywood I worked with this wonderful man in the film "29 Palms". He was a gentleman, and a witty conversationalist.
I feel a loss with his passing. Oct. 23, 2012 at 2:20 p.m.
HJM56716 sHUNNED by the American Indian Movement for twice beating up his elderly father and convicted of the crime Russel was left to lead without Indian followers. Indians respect Elders and beating an elder is unforgivable. He was an actor a con man, who injected himself into the fire. Impulsive and driven. He was a man and an Indian who had the warrior in him. I got him. His famiily did not stand behind him and neither did any Indian who was afraid of being "embarrassed." Infallable and human--Russell will be missed. Oct. 23, 2012 at 2:20 p.m.
jameskCambria, CA I once recognized him sitting alone in a cafeteria at a truck stop in the Central Valley in California. I bought a card from the gift shop, told him I admired his work in Last of the Mohicans and asked him if he would sign it. He wrote simply, "Thanks for caring." Oct. 23, 2012 at 11:38 a.m.RECOMMENDED5
Babbs6Chicago, IL RIP Mr. Means. Your efforts are admirable! Oct. 23, 2012 at 11:19 a.m.RECOMMENDED2
Daniel LiptonPotsdam, GermanyNYT Pick Knowing Russell and being in his presence was something that has marked me in an unforgettable way. I feel a tie to the plight of the American Indian due to his indelible defense and accusations. I know of his life but cannot help feel a kinship with him and overlook the negative aspects of his journey. I will miss you Russell. Oct. 23, 2012 at 10:45 a.m.RECOMMENDED5
Mark WeinsteinSeattle, Washington An indomitable spirit. Right or wrong, up or down, Means lived in involvement and fervor. He never stopped being alive and undefeated. Oct. 23, 2012 at 10:45 a.m.RECOMMENDED7
CMRCovington, TN Perhaps, in the providence of Yahweh, he was placed as a man out of time in the latter years of the 20th century to remind us of what happened under the rubric of "Manifest Destiny" a century earlier. Oct. 23, 2012 at 10:45 a.m.RECOMMENDED4
KatieSTNYT Pick I grew up in a coal mining town in north Canada in the 70's as a child of white immigrants. Most white people then, and still today proliferate outright racism towards Aboriginal peoples, and institutionally, it is a hard reality as well.
For example, As a wildland firefighter, I spent years working in the bush with several First Nations fire crews who were called Type 2 Firefighters by the government, while crews composed of almost 100% white firefighters have always been called Type 1 crews. This was a naming convention that I believe is so inappropriate, no matter what the operational reason for the name is. Another example, is how there is a gross wage inequality between whites and Aboriginal firefighters that continues today when both work side by-side on the fireline.
I am sorry to hear such a bright character in the United States struggle for equity as Mr. Means has passed, but also so much more sorry for how sorry the state of affairs is in 2012 for First Nations and Aboriginal peoples.
So much more needs to improve. Thanks for your leadership and impact Russel, go well. Oct. 23, 2012 at 10:23 a.m.RECOMMENDED14
AlanAsheville Agree or disagree with his political views, the pleasure was all mine in having the opportunity to meet several times a man of such character. Russell lived his colorful life as he wanted and was not affraid to express his thoughts. My condolences to his family. Oct. 23, 2012 at 10:23 a.m.RECOMMENDED4
MGNHouston May he rest in peace, a brave and strong man. Readers, please consider donating to any organization that provides support to Native Americans. Oct. 23, 2012 at 10:23 a.m.RECOMMENDED3
cftLas Cruces, NM His portrayal of Chingachgook brought a relevancy to The Last of the Mochicans which jumps off the scene at every viewing. A real life icon portraying one of the most noble fictional characters ever. He demands your attention during each scene in which he appears. Mr. Means was the same type of hero
as Chingachgook for his people and for all of us with a sense of justice. His dignity is an example for the ages. Thanks for setting such a high example as a man. Oct. 23, 2012 at 10:23 a.m.RECOMMENDED4
Faramarz FathiBoston, MA A hero to his people and a champion of just and justice for all of us.
May more devotees follow his path during these convoluted times. RIP my friend.
Faramarz Fathi Oct. 23, 2012 at 10:23 a.m.RECOMMENDED1
Peter O'MalleyOakland, New Jeresy Regarding the Cleveland Indians and "Chief Wahoo", it is interesting to note that, despite the protests, and despite the cultural trends (maybe outside of the "Sportsworld" conglomerate) toward what might be called either "cultural sensitivity" or "political correctness", such a caricature persists. It would be hard to imagine, say, a team with a logo of, say, sleepy Mexican in a poncho and sombrero, but certain ethnicities are protected from caricature, others are not. Witness that university in South Bend, Indiana, that still uses as its team "mascot" a basically 19th century nativist caricature -- complete with the reputation for brawling -- of the thuggish, apelike Irish immigrant who were so unwelcome well into the 20th century. RIP, Mr. Banks. Oct. 23, 2012 at 10:23 a.m.RECOMMENDED3
TropicalgardenerCalifornia Many will speak out against this man, and say many unkind things. What was his crime? To reclaim his history, the history of his people, to shed light on centuries of murder, slavery, rape, molestation of children, stealing of land, fake treaties, fake words, the poisoning by the English. For this he has been demonized, called a terrorist. Isn't he really just one of our Great Americans, the Original American? For all his faults, he was a giant in the Native American movement; there needs to be a statute of this man; he was a Great Chief.
Oct. 23, 2012 at 10:23 a.m.RECOMMENDED1
g.bronitskyAlbuquerque No, his crime was beating his then-wife and his 80 year old father-in-law, and using his arrest to set back tribal sovereignty 40 years. Oct. 23, 2012 at 11:38 a.m.RECOMMENDED1
AlexandraBoston Rest in peace, Russell Means. Oct. 23, 2012 at 7:53 a.m.RECOMMENDED2
DougToronto Sounds like he actually fought for First Nations' rights, instead of the rights of Indians. I know going back a few decades to review his good work means the temptation to use the 16th century name for Native Americans, isn't getting over that name "Indians", what this is all about? Even if in the 1970s and 80s he had to use it himself, just to be understood? Oct. 23, 2012 at 7:42 a.m.RECOMMENDED1
lemonchiffonAmerica Thank you, Russell for the gift of your life. I hope you are at peace now after years of suffering. Now you can dance in the Great Ghost Dance. Oct. 23, 2012 at 7:42 a.m.RECOMMENDED4
doktorijEastern Tn He may have been an imperfect man, and a self promoter, but he was important to AIM. I think one has to consider that there are times when people like Russel are constructive and vital elements of change.
For whatever reason, AIM and the surrounding events, stood out. It was native civil rights.
I still feel there is much left to do. Even with his troubled life Russel Means did manage to do some good. He overcame adversity that is hard for me to comprehend.
South Dakota lost two good citizens this week... Oct. 23, 2012 at 7:42 a.m.RECOMMENDED13
Amandla1199NYC Well said.
R.I.P., Russell Means. May your spirit soar with the eagle and prayers and well wishes for the Lakota people. Oct. 23, 2012 at 7:42 a.m.RECOMMENDED5
mjbTucson How sad that Russell Means and George McGovern died at the same time. And how beautiful, in a way.
He moved me. He moved me from afar. I did not know him personally, and I don't really care about his personal failings. Weird that some commenters think it is appropriate to diss him at his death.
Death burns away the chaff. Love remains. I love what he did in his public life. He loved, too.
That is what matters. Soar to the heavens, Russell. Oct. 23, 2012 at 7:42 a.m.RECOMMENDED13
Clement R KnorrTucson, ArizonaNYT Pick Russell Means was indeed a complex figure and often contradicted himself. That being said, Means did a lot to call attention to the ongoing plight of Native Americans and must be regarded as an important leader.
The treatment of Native American people is an almost three hundred year on- going horror story. There is no better example of how forced dependency on the government can rob a people of their self respect and dignity. Oct. 23, 2012 at 7:41 a.m.RECOMMENDED7
stu williamssan diego, caNYT Pick Russell Means, the American Indian Movement - He, that movement, raised Americans' consciousness of the plight of Native Americans. It wasn't a pretty time in the U.S., but that awareness and sharing benefited all us, as a nation, as one people.
R.I.P., Russell Means. May your spirit soar with the eagle and prayers and well wishes for the Lakota people. Oct. 23, 2012 at 12:49 a.m.RECOMMENDED16
Charleen TouchetteSanta Fe, New Mexico http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151064671771767&set=a.10496...
Russell Means on his ranch in Porcupine in June 2012. Photo by Sage Paisner. Oct. 23, 2012 at 12:05 a.m.
BelvaJrHarrisburg, PA Whatever Mr. Means' life meant to others, I am thankful for his activism. Without it, I feel that I would never have understood quite as well the poor treatment of the "Native Americans" in this "new" world...I was only a small child, but Mr. Means' actions spoke volumes to me,
and his passion spurred me to want to find out more about why he was so passionate about his beliefs, rather than simply be dismissive of his "outrageous" behaviour as so many others around me were. Not everything I found was pretty, but I am glad I learned much more about it. My condolences to his family. Oct. 23, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.RECOMMENDED13
CatCalifornia I saw Mr. Means speak at Agape Spiritual Center several years ago. I asked him to inscribe his book....and for whatever his self-promoting or other errors in life, his spiritual power was evident and it was one of the most meaningful worship service ceremonies I have ever attended. May he know the liberation in spirit he so wished for all his life.
Blessings and Agape love. Cat Oct. 22, 2012 at 10:51 p.m.RECOMMENDED11 READ MORE COMMENTS To comment, reply or recommend please Log In or Create An Account. Âť