Russell Means, the Oglala Lakota Indian (Means said the designation "Sioux" was derogatory) whose controversial political activism on behalf of America's Indian tribes first became headlines in the 1973 siege of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, died today on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
Born on Pine Ridge in 1939, Means' transfer to a nearly all-white California high school resulted in daily relentless bullying. First Means fought back, then he fell into alcohol and substance abuse for several years before getting his footing in 1969 at the American Indian Center in Cleveland, OH. It was in Ohio that Means met Dennis Banks, co-founder of the new American Indian Movement.
In 1972, Means and other prominent Indian activists organized a mass demonstration on Washington, D.C. to coincide with the election. The housing they were promised by the Department of Interior was rat-iinfested and overcrowded so the demonstrators took over the Bureau of Indian Affairs and renamed it the Native American Embassy.They were evicted four days later when they were promised that investigations of programs that were supposed to help Indians would take place.
Three months later, Means and 200 armed supporters began a 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee where, in 1890, the U.S. military massacred more than 300 men, women, and children of the Sioux/Lakota tribe.Several weeks later, Means went to Washington, D.C. to try to broker an end to the siege. He was arrested and jailed when he rejected the unconditional surrender offer. The remaining protesters surrendered on May 8th, 1973. Means and other principles talked about this action in the 2005 documentary Wounded Heart: Pine Ridge and the Sioux.
His 1974 trial for his role in Wounded Knee ended after seven months when the Judge dismissed all charges after it was revealed that a member of Means' own defense team was an FBI informant who supplied information to the prosecution.
In 1994, Means sought the limelight on the silver screen. He played Chingachgook in the 1992 move, The Last of the Mohicans. Means' autobiography, Where White Men Fear to Tread: The Autobiography of Russell Means, was published in 1995. He used this venue to rail against the term 'Native Americans' and the whole notion of Native American Heritage Month.
Means was just a few weeks shy of his 73rd when he died of esophegeal cancer.