* Led 1973 uprising at Wounded Knee in South Dakota
* Appeared in films including 'The Last of the Mohicans'
* Split with American Indian Movement over indigenous
(Adds details, background throughout)
By Keith Coffman
Oct 22 American Indian activist Russell Means,
whose lifelong campaign to assure the rights and dignity of his
people grew to encompass Hollywood and indigenous populations
worldwide, died on Monday at his South Dakota home, his family
said. He was 72.
"Our dad and husband now walks among our ancestors," the
family said in a statement.
The firebrand former leader of the American Indian Movement
and one-time Libertarian Party candidate for U.S. president had
been battling esophageal cancer.
Born in South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of
the Oglala Sioux, also known as the Oglala Lakota, Means
participated in the 1964 American Indian occupation of Alcatraz
Island in San Francisco Bay, his first major act of civil
He joined the American Indian Movement in 1968 and soon
became one its prominent leaders.
He subsequently took part in an occupation of the U.S.
Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington in 1972. But
it was his leadership of an armed, 72-day standoff against
federal authorities at Wounded Knee on Pine Ridge in 1973 that
made him a national figure.
The siege at Wounded Knee, protesting what Means believed to
be a corrupt tribal government and maltreatment of American
Indians by federal authorities, left two demonstrators dead, a
U.S. marshal paralyzed and numerous others injured.
Nearly 80 years earlier, Wounded Knee was the site of an
1890 massacre of scores of Lakota men, women and children by
U.S. cavalry troops in what was the final major clash of the
American Indian wars.
Beginning his activism in the early 1960s, at the height of
the U.S. Civil Rights movement focused on ending racial
segregation for blacks, Means first protested college and
professional sports teams' use of Indian images as mascots. He
said they were demeaning caricatures of his people.
Means was arrested numerous times throughout his life and
spent several periods in jail. He ultimately expanded his
efforts on behalf of American Indians - he disliked the term
"Native American" - to rally support for indigenous people in
Means split with the national chapter of the American Indian
Movement, or AIM, in the mid-1980s over the group's stance on
the forced relocation of Miskito Indians at the hands of the
Sandinista government in Nicaragua, among other issues.
Means said AIM's left-leaning national leadership was
hesitant to criticize Nicaragua's Marxist regime.
He then formed the American Indian Movement of Colorado, and
was arrested multiple times for blocking the Columbus Day parade
He called Christopher Columbus a "trans-Atlantic slave
trader" whose life and explorations should not be celebrated
because they launched hundreds of years of mistreatment of
indigenous people by European settlers in the New World.
"No one in AIM was loved or hated as passionately as Russell
Means," said Robert Allen Warrior, director of American Indian
Studies at the University of Illinois.
Warrior, co-author of "Like a Hurricane: The American Indian
Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee," called Means one of the
most important Native Americans of the last 100 years.
He ran unsuccessfully for president of his tribe and sought
the Libertarian nomination for U.S. president, losing to
Representative Ron Paul at the party's 1987 national convention.
"Given the mistreatment of American Indians by the U.S.
government, I don't know why any of us would be anything but
libertarians who mistrust the federal government," he told
Reuters in an interview.
In a more baffling political turn, "Hustler" magazine
publisher Larry Flynt tapped Means as his running mate in a
long-shot 1984 bid for the Republican presidential nomination
widely seen as an election-year stunt.
Means, who was married several times, was candid about his
own foibles, including a struggle with alcohol. In 1997 he was
arrested on suspicion of assault on his then-father-in-law.
"Despite his sometimes odd choices, personal failures and
ethical lapses, he was central to giving voice to the radical
vision of protest to American Indians of the late 20th century,"
Means dabbled in acting, appearing in such films as "The
Last of the Mohicans" and "Natural Born Killers." He was the
voice of Pocahontas' father in the popular 1995 Disney film.
More recently, he was the public face of Lakota tribal
members who sued the U.S. government over child sexual abuse by
Roman Catholic priests at Indian boarding schools in South
The federal government had contracted with the Catholic
Church and other religious organizations to run the schools.
"The boarding schools were part of a century of torture by
the federal government and their cultural genocide against
American Indians," he said.
Means was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2011, and
underwent a combination of traditional Native American and
conventional modern medical therapies at an Arizona clinic. He
died just weeks shy of his 73rd birthday.
Troy Lynn Yellow Wood, who knew Means for more than 40
years, said he put up "a valiant fight" against the cancer, but
in the end decided to return home to die.
"This is a great loss to the Lakota people," she said.
"Russell gave us the courage to stand up and be heard about the
terrible injustices that were done to us."
(Reporting by Keith Coffman; Editing by Steve Gorman and Xavier