SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – Russell Means never shunned attention. Whether leading Native Americans in railing against broken federal treaties, appearing in a Hollywood blockbuster or advocating a sovereign Native American nation within U.S. borders, the activist who helped lead the 1973 uprising at Wounded Knee reveled in the spotlight.
But it was only on his terms. Openly critical of mainstream media, the onetime leader of the American Indian Movement often refused interviews and verbally blasted journalists who showed up to cover his public appearances. Instead, he chose to speak to his fan base through YouTube videos and blog posts on his personal website.
When he did speak out publicly, he remained steadfast in his defense of AIM. He found himself dogged for decades by questions about the group’s alleged involvement in the slaying of a tribe member and the several gun battles with federal officers during the 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee, but denied the group ever promoted violence.
“You people who want to continue to put AIM in this certain pocket of illegality, I can’t stand you people,” Means said, lashing out an at audience member question during an April gathering commemorating the uprising’s 40th anniversary. “I wish I was a little bit healthier and a little bit younger, because I wouldn’t just talk.”
Means, who announced in August 2011 that he had developed inoperable throat cancer but told The Associated Press he was forgoing mainstream medical treatments in favor of traditional Native American remedies, died early Monday at his ranch in Porcupine, S.D., Oglala Sioux Tribe spokeswoman Donna Salomon said. He was 72.
Born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Means grew up in the San Francisco area before becoming an early leader of AIM. He often was embroiled in controversy, partly because of AIM’s alleged involvement in the 1975 slaying of Annie Mae Aquash.
But Means also was known for his role in the movie “The Last of the Mohicans” and had run unsuccessfully for the Libertarian nomination for president in 1988.
AIM was founded in the late 1960s to protest the U.S. government’s treatment of Native Americans and demand the government honor its treaties with Native American tribes. Means told the AP in 2011 that before AIM, there had been no advocate on a national or international scale for Native Americans, and that they were ashamed of their heritage.
“No one, except Hollywood stars and very rich Texans, wore Indian jewelry,” Means said. “And there was a plethora of dozens if not hundreds of athletic teams that, in essence, were insulting us, from grade schools to college. That’s all changed.”
The movement eventually faded away, the result of Native Americans becoming self-aware and self-determined, Means said.
Paul DeMain, editor of News from Indian Country, said there were plenty of Native American activists before AIM but the group became the “radical media gorilla.”
“If someone needed help, you called on the American Indian Movement and they showed up and caused all kind of ruckus and looked beautiful on a 20-second clip on TV that night,” DeMain said.
Means and AIM co-founder Dennis Banks were charged in 1974 for their role in the Wounded Knee uprising, but after a trial that lasted several months, a judge threw the charges out on grounds of government misconduct.
Means said he felt his most important accomplishment was the founding of the Republic of Lakotah and the “re-establishment of our freedom to be responsible” as a sovereign nation inside the borders of the United States. His efforts to have his proposed country recognized by the international community continued at the United Nations, he said, even as it was ignored by tribal governments closer to home, including his own Oglala Sioux Tribe.
But others may remember him for his former organization’s connection to Aquash’s slaying. Her death remains synonymous with AIM and its often-violent clashes with federal agents in the 1970s.
Authorities believe three AIM members shot and killed Aquash on the Pine Ridge reservation on the orders of someone in AIM’s leadership because they suspected she was an FBI informant. Two activists – Arlo Looking Cloud and John Graham – were both eventually convicted of murder. The third has never been charged.
Means blamed Vernon Bellecourt, another AIM leader, for ordering Aquash’s killing. Bellecourt denied the allegations in a 2004 interview, four years before he died.
DeMain, an Native American journalist who researched the case, said AIM’s leaders know who ordered Aquash’s killing but have covered up the truth for decades.
Also in 1975, murder charges were filed against Means and Dick Marshall, an AIM member, in the shooting death of Martin Montileaux of Kyle at the Longbranch Saloon in Scenic. Marshall served 24 years in prison. Means was acquitted.
In addition to his presidential bid, Means also briefly served as a vice presidential candidate in 1984, joining the Larry Flynt ticket during the Hustler magazine publisher’s unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination. Flynt was typically a Democrat.
But Means always considered himself a Libertarian and couldn’t believe that anyone would want to call themselves either a Republican or a Democrat.
“It’s just unconscionable that America has become so stupid,” he said.
His acting career began in 1992 when he portrayed Chingachgook alongside Daniel Day-Lewis’ Hawkeye in “The Last of the Mohicans.” 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 recounted his life in the book Where White Men Fear to Tread. He said he pulled no punches in his autobiography, admitting to his frailties and evils but also acknowledging his successes.
“I tell the truth, and I expose myself as a weak, misguided, misdirected, dysfunctional human being I used to be,” he said.
Salomon, the tribal spokeswoman, called Means’ death a “great loss” for the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
Means’ death came a day after former U.S. Sen. George McGovern died in Sioux Falls at the age of 90. McGovern had traveled to Wounded Knee with U.S. Sen. James Abourezk during the 71-day takeover to try to negotiate an end.
“I’ve lost two good friends in a matter of two to three days,” Abourezk said Monday morning. “I don’t pretend to understand it.”