[Marxism] Russell Means, Who Revived Warrior Image of American Indian, Dies at 72
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Mon Oct 22 09:19:36 MDT 2012
NY Times October 22, 2012
Russell Means, Who Revived Warrior Image of American Indian, Dies at 72
By ROBERT D. McFADDEN
Russell C. Means, the charismatic Oglala Sioux who helped revive the
warrior image of the American Indian in the 1970s with guerrilla-tactic
protests that called attention to the nation’s history of injustices
against its indigenous peoples, died on Monday at his ranch in
Porcupine, S.D., on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was 72.
The cause was esophageal cancer that had spread recently to his tongue,
lymph nodes and lungs, said Glenn Morris, Mr. Means’s legal
representative. Told in the summer of 2011 that the cancer was
inoperable, Mr. Means had already resolved to shun mainstream medical
treatments in favor of herbal and other native remedies.
Strapping, ruggedly handsome in buckskins, with a scarred face, piercing
dark eyes and raven braids that dangled to the waist, Mr. Means was, by
his own account, a magnet for trouble — addicted to drugs and alcohol in
his early years, and later arrested repeatedly in violent clashes with
rivals and the law, once tried for abetting a murder, shot several
times, stabbed once and imprisoned for a year for rioting.
He styled himself a throwback to ancestors who resisted the westward
expansion of the American frontier and, with theatrical protests that
brought national attention to poverty and discrimination suffered by his
people, became arguably the nation’s best-known Indian since Sitting
Bull and Crazy Horse.
But critics, including many Native Americans, called him a tireless
self-promoter who capitalized on his angry-rebel notoriety by running
quixotic races for the presidency and the governorship of New Mexico, by
acting in dozens of movies — notably in the title role of “The Last of
the Mohicans” (1992) — and by writing and recording music commercially
with Indian warrior and heritage themes.
He rose to national attention as a leader of the American Indian
Movement in 1970 by directing a band of Indian protesters who seized the
Mayflower II ship replica at Plymouth, Mass., on Thanksgiving Day. The
boisterous confrontation between Indians and costumed “Pilgrims”
attracted network television coverage and made Mr. Means an overnight
hero to dissident Indians and sympathetic whites.
Later, he orchestrated an Indian prayer vigil atop the federal monument
of sculptured presidential heads at Mount Rushmore, S.D., to dramatize
Lakota claims to Black Hills land. In 1972, he organized cross-country
caravans converging on Washington to protest a century of broken
treaties, and led an occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He also
attacked the “Chief Wahoo” mascot symbol of the Cleveland Indians
baseball team, a toothy Indian caricature that he called racist and
demeaning. It is still used.
And in a 1973 protest covered by the national news media for months, he
led hundreds of Indians and white sympathizers in an occupation of
Wounded Knee, S.D., site of the 1890 massacre of some 350 Lakota men,
women and children in the last major conflict of the American Indian
wars. The protesters demanded strict federal adherence to old Indian
treaties, and an end to what they called corrupt tribal governments.
In the ensuing 71-day standoff with federal agents, thousands of shots
were fired, two Indians were killed and an agent was paralyzed. Mr.
Means and his fellow protest leader Dennis Banks were charged with
assault, larceny and conspiracy. But after a long federal trial in
Minnesota in 1974, with the defense raising current and historic Indian
grievances, the case was dismissed by a judge for prosecutorial misconduct.
Mr. Means later faced other legal battles. In 1976, he was acquitted in
a jury trial in Rapid City, S.D., of abetting a murder in a barroom
brawl. Wanted on six warrants in two states, he was convicted in 1976 of
involvement in a 1974 riot during a clash between the police and Indian
activists outside a Rapid City courthouse. He served a year in a state
prison, where he was stabbed by another inmate.
Mr. Means also survived several gunshots — one in the abdomen fired
during a scuffle with an Indian Affairs police officer in North Dakota
in 1975, a grazed forehead in what he called a drive-by assassination
attempt on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1975, and
one in the chest fired by another would-be assassin on another South
Dakota reservation in 1976.
Undeterred, he led a caravan of Sioux and Cheyenne into a gathering of
500 people commemorating the centennial of Gen. George Armstrong
Custer’s last stand at Little Big Horn in Montana in 1876, the nation’s
worst defeat of the Indian wars. To pounding drums, Mr. Means and his
followers mounted a speaker’s platform, joined hands and did a victory
dance, sung in Sioux Lakota, titled “Custer Died for Your Sins.”
Russell Charles Means was born on Nov. 10, 1939, on the Pine Ridge
Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the oldest of four sons of Harold
and Theodora Feather Means. The Anglo-Saxon surname was that of a
great-grandfather. When he was 3, the family moved to the San Francisco
Bay area, where his father, a welder and auto mechanic, worked in
Russell attended public schools in Vallejo and San Leandro High School,
where he faced racial taunts, had poor grades and barely graduated in
1958. He drifted into delinquency, drugs, alcoholism and street fights.
He also attended four colleges, including Arizona State at Tempe, but
did not earn a degree. For much of the 1960s he rambled about the West,
working as a janitor, printer, cowboy and dance instructor.
In 1969, he took a job with the Rosebud Sioux tribal council in South
Dakota. Within months, he moved to Cleveland and became founding
director of a government-financed center helping Native Americans adapt
to urban life. He also met Mr. Banks, who had recently co-founded the
American Indian Movement. In 1970 Mr. Means became the movement’s
national director, and over the next decade his actions made him a
In 1985 and 1986, he went to Nicaragua to support indigenous Miskito
Indians whose autonomy was threatened by the leftist Sandinista
government. He reported Sandinista atrocities against the Indians and
urged the Reagan administration to aid the victims. Millions in aid went
to right-wing contras opposing the Sandinistas, but none to their Indian
In 1987, Mr. Means ran for president. He sought the Libertarian Party
nomination but lost to Ron Paul, a former and future Congressman from
Texas. In 2002, Mr. Means campaigned independently for the New Mexico
governorship, but was barred procedurally from the ballot.
Mr. Means retired from the American Indian Movement in 1988, but leaders
from the movement with whom he had feuded for years scoffed, saying he
had “retired” six times previously. They generally disowned him and his
work, calling him an opportunist out for political and financial gain.
In 1989, he told Congress there was “rampant graft and corruption” in
tribal governments and federal programs assisting Native Americans.
Mr. Means began his acting career in 1992, and, over two decades,
appeared in more than 30 films and television productions, including
“Natural Born Killers” (1994) and “Pathfinder” (2007). He also recorded
CDs, including “Electric Warrior: The Sound of Indian America,” (1993)
and wrote a memoir, “Where White Men Fear to Tread,” (1995, with Marvin
He was married and divorced four times and had nine children. He adopted
many others following Lakota tradition. His fifth marriage, to Pearl
Daniels, was in 1999, and she survives him.
Mr. Means cut off his braids a few months before receiving his cancer
diagnosis. It was, he said in an interview in October 2011 , a gesture
of mourning for his people. In Lakota lore, he explained, the hair holds
memories, and mourners often cut it to release those memories, and the
people in them, to the spirit world.
Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting.
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