Russell Means, a former American Indian Movement activist who was instrumental in organizing notable events that attracted national and international media coverage and appeared in several Hollywood films, has died. He was 72.
Means died early Monday at his ranch in South Dakota, Oglala Sioux Tribe spokeswoman Donna Salomon told reporters.
Means, a Wanblee native who grew up in the San Francisco area, announced in August 2011 that he had inoperable throat cancer. He told the Associated Press he was forgoing mainstream medical treatments in favor of traditional American Indian remedies and alternative treatments away from his home on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
In 1968, at age 29, Means joined the American Indian Movement, where he rose to become a prominent leader. In 1970, Means was appointed AIM's first national director, and the organization began a period of increasing protests and activism.
In one of the group's most notable demonstrations, Means led an armed occupation of the South Dakota town of Wounded Knee, a 71-day siege that included several gun battles with federal officers.
Means and AIM co-founder Dennis Banks were charged in 1974 for their role in the Wounded Knee incident, but after a trial that lasted several months, a judge threw the charges out on grounds of government misconduct.
Another infamous demonstration included the 1975 slaying of Annie Mae Aquash and the alleged involvement of the movement in the incident.
Reports indicate that authorities believe three AIM members shot and killed Aquash on the Pine Ridge reservation on the orders of someone in AIM's leadership because they suspected she was an FBI informant. Two activists — Arlo Looking Cloud and John Graham — were eventually convicted of murder. The third has never been charged.
On Jan. 8, 1988, Means held a press conference to announce his retirement from AIM (for the sixth time), saying it had achieved its goals
In 1993, the organization divided officially into two main factions: AIM Grand Governing Council, based in Minnesota, and American Indian Movement of Colorado, based in Colorado and allied with Means.
Paul DeMain, editor of News from Indian Country, advocated for the ending of AIM, telling the AP that there were plenty of Indian activists before AIM but that the group became the "radical media gorilla."
"If someone needed help, you called on the American Indian Movement and they showed up and caused all kind of ruckus and looked beautiful on a 20-second clip on TV that night," DeMain said.
Often a source of controversy because of his former association with AIM, Means eventually found peace with the American public by appearing in many Hollywood movies.
Since 1992, Means appeared as an actor in numerous films and television movies, first as the chief Chingachgook in “The Last of the Mohicans.” He also appeared as Arrowhead in the made-for-TV movie “The Pathfinder” (1996). Means then followed with roles in 1994’s “Natural Born Killers,” and a significant voiced role as Chief Powhatan in the 1995 animated film "Pocahontas." He also guest starred on the hit HBO series "Curb Your Enthusiasm."
Means recounted his life in the book "Where White Men Fear to Tread." He admitted to his weaknesses 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.
Means' death came a day after former U.S. Sen. George McGovern died in Sioux Falls at the age of 90. McGovern had traveled to Wounded Knee with U.S. Sen. James Abourezk during the 71-day takeover to try to negotiate an end.
"I've lost two good friends in a matter of two to three days," Abourezk said Monday morning. "I don't pretend to understand it."