U.S. News

Widow of American Indian activist sues doctors over his death

DENVER (Reuters) - The widow of American Indian activist Russell Means has sued a New Mexico hospital for wrongful death and medical malpractice, claiming her husband’s cancer was misdiagnosed before his death in 2012, court records show.

American Indian activist Russell Means poses for a portrait at his home in Scottsdale, Arizona, October 28, 2011. REUTERS/Joshua Lott

Pearl Means says in a lawsuit filed against the Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe that physicians associated with the facility overlooked her husband’s esophageal cancer when he sought treatment there in 2011.

According to the complaint filed in state court in San Miguel County, medical personnel missed the cancer despite obvious symptoms that Means displayed, including difficulty swallowing and spitting up blood.

“Mrs. Means was reassured that it was negative (for cancer) other than for a possible enlarged tonsil, even though Russell Means had previously undergone a tonsillectomy as a child,” the lawsuit said.

By the time Means was properly diagnosed, the cancer had spread throughout his body, it said. The former leader of the American Indian Movement (AIM) died aged 72.

Reached by telephone at her New Mexico home on Thursday, Pearl Means declined to comment.

Hospital spokesman Arturo Delgado said in a statement that while “our hearts go out to the friends and family” of Means, the hospital denies any wrongdoing.

“It is important to note that in this case, the New Mexico Medical Review commission affirmed by a vote of 6-0 that there was no professional negligence on the part of the hospital,” he said.

Means, an Oglala Lakota, began his activism in the early 1960s, protesting the use of American Indian images as mascots for professional and collegiate athletic teams.

He later joined AIM and became a national figure in 1973 after a 72-day standoff with federal authorities at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Wounded Knee was the site of an 1890 massacre of scores of Lakotas by U.S. cavalry troops, and AIM members and supporters occupied the village to protest mistreatment of American Indians by the federal government.

Means, who became the face of the occupiers with his fiery and confrontational rhetoric, was jailed several times over the years for his activities with AIM and other protesters.

He failed in a bid for the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination in 1987, and he dabbled in acting, appearing in such films as “The Last of the Mohicans” and “Natural Born Killers,” and as the voice of Pocahontas’ father in the 1995 Disney movie.

After his death, fellow AIM member Dennis Banks described him as “the greatest visionary of what was and what should be” for the American Indian people.

Reporting by Keith Coffman; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Sandra Maler