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Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism University of Southern California

Russell Means, Actor and Native American Activist, Dies at 72

Means, who is responsible for the revival of the Indian warrior image, was battling esophageal cancer.

Native American Activist and actor Russel Means died Monday (Creative Commons)
Native American Activist and actor Russel Means died Monday (Creative Commons)
Russell Means, an Oglala Sioux most prominently known for his acting and Native American activism, died Monday at his ranch in Porcupine, South Dakota. He was 72.

Means was battling esophageal cancer, which had recently spread to his tongue, lymph nodes and lungs, according to Glenn Moris, Mr. Means’s legal representative.

Among Means’s many legacies, his most enduring is the revival of the warrior image of the Native American. The legacy began as he rose to prominence as one of the leaders of the American Indian Movement in the 1970s.

The AIM engaged in many controversial protests in favor of Native Americans in the 1970s, including an occupation of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington in 1972, and a 71-day standoff with federal authorities at Wounded Knee on Pine Ridge in 1973.

Despite allegations of the AIM’s use of violence during the Wounded Knee standoff, and his own numerous arrests and incarcerations, Means remained proud of the message of the movement and his involvement in it.

He told the Associated Press in 2011 that before the AIM, there was minimal activism for Native Americans, and that they were ashamed of their heritage. Means notably urged sports teams to abandon Indian names and mascots out of respect for the American Indian population.

His activism wasn’t inclusive to just America, in the 1980s, Means traveled to Nicaragua to support the indigenous Miskito Indians in their battle against the Sandinista government.

In the late 1980s, Means ran for the Libertarian nomination for U.S. President, but lost to Congressman Ron Paul in 1987.

Means turned to acting in 1992, with his breakout role of Chingachgook in “The Last of the Mohicans." His other notable roles include an Old Indian in “Natural Born Killers," and the voice of Powhatan in “Pocahontas."

Means is credited in two films, “Tiger Eyes” and “Winnetou: The Beginning,” which are slated for 2013 release dates.

Means recounted his life in the book, “Where White Men Fear To Tread," in which he explains both his successes and his shortcomings in equal honesty.

"I tell the truth, and I expose myself as a weak, misguided, misdirected, dysfunctional human being I used to be," Means said.

He was diagnosed with inoperable cancer in the summer of 2011, and resolved to reject mainstream medical treatments and turn to herbal and other native remedies instead.

According to Donna Salomon, an Oglala Sioux spokesperson, his death is “a great loss” to the tribe. 


I hope that grandfather spirit takes care of him

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