Russell Means, a former American Indian Movement activist who helped lead a 1973 uprising against the US Government and appeared in several Hollywood films, has died. He was 72.
It’s just unconscionable that America has become so stupid
Means died at his ranch in South Dakota, Oglala Sioux Tribe spokeswoman Donna Salomon said.
He was diagnosed with oesophageal 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.
Means, whose films include The Last of the Mohicans, led AIM’s armed occupation of the South Dakota town of Wounded Knee, a 71-day siege that included several gun battles with federal officers.
AIM was founded in the late 1960s to protest at the US Government’s treatment of Native Americans and demand the Government honour its treaties with Indian tribes.
“You people who want to continue to put AIM in this certain pocket of illegality, I can’t stand you people,” Means said during an April gathering commemorating the uprising’s anniversary. “I wish I was a little bit healthier and a little bit younger, because I wouldn’t just talk.”
Means said in 2011 that before AIM, there had been no advocate on a national or international scale for American Indians and that Native Americans were ashamed of their heritage.
“No one except Hollywood stars and very rich Texans wore Indian jewellery,” Means said. “That’s all changed.”
The movement eventually faded away as Native Americans became self-aware and self-determined, Means said.
He was often embroiled in controversy, partly because of AIM’s alleged involvement in a 1975 killing. But Means was also known for his role in the film The Last of the Mohicans and his unsuccessful run for the Libertarian nomination for President in 1988.
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 US.
His efforts to have his proposed country recognised 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 organisation’s connection to the killing of Annie Mae Aquash, whose death remains synonymous with AIM and its often violent clashes with federal agents in the 1970s.
But Means always considered himself a Libertarian and could not believe anyone would want to identify as 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’s 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 admitted to his frailties and evils but also acknowledged his successes.
“I tell the truth, and I expose myself as a weak, misguided, misdirected, dysfunctional human being I used to be,” he said.