R.I.P. Russell Means, Native American activist and actor

R.I.P. Russell Means, Native American activist and actor

Native American activist and actor Russell Means has died at the age of 72. A member of the Oglala Sioux tribe born on the Pine River Indian Reservation, Means joined the American Indian Movement (AIM) in 1968 and became the group’s first national leader two years later.

The charismatic Means quickly became one of the most prominent faces of the movement, partly through his role in such public protests as the 1970 takeover of the Mayflower II and the 1972 occupation of the Washington, D.C. offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 1973, he served as spokesman for the AIM members who occupied Wounded Knee during a 71-day standoff with federal authorities. His actions attracted the attention of actors like Marlon Brando who, after consulting with Means, famously demonstrated his support for Means' cause by having Sacheen Littlefeather refuse his Oscar for The Godfather.

In 1974, Means helped form the International Indian Treaty Council, an organization devoted to protecting the rights of indigenous people of the Americas, the Caribbean, and the Pacific; the IITC was officially recognized by the United Nations in 1977. In 1974, Means resigned from AIM to run unsuccessfully for the presidency of the Oglala Sioux. It was the first of half a dozen times Means would announce his resignation from AIM, which was already splintering from internal divisions and political infighting. He finally walked away for good in 1988, the same year he sought the nomination to be the Libertarian candidate for President. (He lost to Ron Paul.) 

In his fifties, Means began developing a side career as a movie actor, beginning with the title role of Chingachgook in Michael Mann’s 1992 The Last Of The Mohicans. He subsequently appeared in films such as Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994), Wagons East (1994), the TV miniseries Buffalo Girls (1995), and ub a voice role in the animated Disney feature Pocahontas (1995). He also made guest appearances on numerous TV series, including Touched By An Angel, Walker, Texas Ranger, Profiler, Nash Bridges, Curb Your Enthusiasm (where he memorably played the herbal remedy-dispensing landscaper Wandering Bear), Duckman, and Thomas The Tank Engine.

Means wrote a memoir, Where White Men Fear To Tread , with Martin J. Wolf in 1995, and recorded two albums: 1993’s Electric Warrior (not to be confused with the T. Rex album), and 1996’s The Radical, featuring such mellow ditties as “Nixon’s Dead Ass” and “Ain’t No Prison For The Corporations.”

In a remembrance published earlier today, Michael Mann said of Means, “He was not a trained actor. His process was to imbue himself with whatever the significance of that relationship was... Every time there was a take, it was new to Russell. He was determined, He absolutely was one of the most determined people I ever met. When he decided he was going to do something, that was it.” 

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