Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Russell Means Dies on Pine Ridge


Hollywood actor and American Indian activist Russell Means died early Monday morning at his ranch near Porcupine on Pine Ridge.  Means was 72 years old and had battled cancer for the past few years.
Means is noted not only for his roles in Hollywood film but also for being a seminal figure in the American Indian Movement.
If you’re from South Dakota there is a pretty good chance you know who Russell Means is, but in case you forgot here’s a scene from a 1992 Hollywood film that might jog your memory.  In it Means plays a key role alongside actor Daniel Day Lewis.
“Tell them to be patient and ask death for speed–for their are there but one, I Chingachgook the last of the Mohicans,” said Means who is playing the role of Chingachgook the “last” Mohican.
Means was not Mohican.  He was an Oglala Lakota.  Means was born in 1939 into the extreme poverty of reservation life. By the late 1960’s frustration over oppression of Native Americans sparked the American Indian Movement.   Means was quick to join and in 1973 he helped spearhead the armed occupation of the town of Wounded Knee.  That 71 day standoff included numerous gun battles between American Indians and federal agents leaving two people dead. As a central figure—Means took part in negotiations with South Dakota’s U.S. Senators–Here’s an excerpt from the WGBH Documentary series “We Shall Remain."
“We’re not going for later anymore Senator.  Now I told you over the phone that I’ve bet, and everybody here and down there have bet with their lives.” Means speaking to the late Senator George McGovern and Senator Jim Abourezk.
For the American Indian Movement that bet arguably paid off.  Means called the occupation of Wounded Knee a watershed event in the struggle for indigenous rights.   
“It sparked the Indian revolution in the entire hemisphere, without Wounded Knee 1973 there would be no Rigoberta Menchú who won the Nobel Peace Prize and there would be no Evo Morales President of Bolivia,” said Means.  “It was Wounded Knee that sparked all of this happening.  My whole purpose is to leave a legacy for the younger people and in fact some of that legacy is paying off already,” he added.
Many historians say the American Indian Movement did have a big impact on indigenous struggles around the world.   Robert Warrior is the Director of American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois.  Warrior says Means was a complex and controversial figure who successfully used his mainstream celebrity and tribal identity to advance the cause.
“Russell could take up the mantle of people like Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull or others and he managed to pull that off in a really impressive way across a long arc of time,” says Warrior. 
Warrior says Means also had his critics. He was accused of failing to pay child support for a number of children he fathered with five wives. And he played a role in leadership disputes within the American Indian Movement that erupted after the uprising and violence of the early 1970’s.   Fellow A.I.M. member Milo Yellowhair who fought alongside Means at Wounded Knee says in-spite what some critics may say Means remains a hero to many of his own people.
“He did stand up, he did go to jail, he did get stabbed, he did get beat up you know all of these things in the name of our own sovereignty and our own justice system,” says Yellowhair. 
Means also ran for tribal president on Pine Ridge a number of times and garnered solid support but never the full majority needed to win.  He remained highly critical of the federal government. He joined the Libertarian Party and tried unsuccessfully for the party’s nomination for president in 1988.  Means called America’s reservation system a type of concentration camp.  In 2007 he declared independence from the United States and the formation of a new nation the “Republic of Lakotah.”   Russell Means never strayed far from the fiery activism of his youth – even while landing significant roles in mainstream films like Pocahontas.  In 2002 when asked if Native American people were still stereotyped in Hollywood–he gave this answer.
“Hollywood hasn’t changed you know.  It is the most racist anti-Indian institution in the world,” said Means,
Russell Means may be remembered for the fictional role he played as the “last” Mohican–but it can also be said that he spent much of his real life fighting to make certain his own people–never see that fate.