DIRK LAMMERS KRISTI EATON
---- — SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Russell Means spent a lifetime as a modern American Indian warrior. He railed against broken treaties, fought for the return of stolen land and even took up arms against the federal government.
A onetime leader of the American Indian Movement, he called national attention to the plight of impoverished tribes and often lamented the waning of Indian culture. After leaving the movement in the 1980s, the handsome, braided activist was still a cultural presence, appearing in several movies.
Means, who died Monday from throat cancer at age 72, helped lead the 1973 uprising at Wounded Knee — a bloody confrontation that raised America’s awareness about the struggles of Indians and gave rise to a wider protest movement that lasted for the rest of the decade.
Before AIM, there were few national advocates for American Indians. Means was one of the first to emerge. He sought to restore Indians’ pride in their culture and to challenge a government that had paid little attention to tribes in generations. He was also one of the first to urge sports teams to do away with Indian names and mascots.
“No one except Hollywood stars and very rich Texans wore Indian jewelry,” Means said, recalling the early days of the movement. 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.”
AIM was founded in the late 1960s to demand that the government honor its treaties with American Indian tribes. The movement eventually faded away, Means said, as Native Americans became more self-aware and self-determined.
There were plenty of American Indian activists before AIM, but it became the “radical media gorilla,” said Paul DeMain, editor of News from Indian Country, a national newspaper focused on tribal affairs.
Means and AIM co-founder Dennis Banks were charged in 1974 for their role in the Wounded Knee uprising in which hundreds of protesters occupied the town on the site of the 1890 Indian massacre. Protesters and federal authorities were locked in a standoff for 71 days and frequently exchanged gunfire. Before it was over, two tribal members were killed and a federal agent seriously wounded. After a trial that lasted several months, a judge threw out the charges on grounds of government misconduct.
Other protests led by Means included an American Indian prayer vigil on top of Mount Rushmore and the seizure of a replica of the Mayflower on Thanksgiving Day in Plymouth, Mass.
But Means’ constant quest for the spotlight raised doubts about his motives. Critics who included many fellow tribe members said his main interest was building his own notoriety.
His activism extended to tribes beyond the United States. In the mid-1980s, Means traveled to Nicaragua to support indigenous Miskito Indians who were fighting the Sandinista government.
Born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Means grew up in the San Francisco area and battled drugs and alcohol as a young man before becoming an early leader of AIM.
He also was known for a handful of Hollywood roles, most notably in the 1992 movie “The Last of the Mohicans,” in which he portrayed Chingachgook alongside Daniel Day-Lewis’ Hawkeye. He also appeared in the 1994 film “Natural Born Killers,” voiced Chief Powhatan in the 1995 animated film “Pocahontas” and guest starred in 2004 on the HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Means also ran unsuccessfully for the Libertarian nomination for president in 1988 and briefly served as a vice presidential candidate in 1984 on the ticket of Hustler publisher Larry Flynt.