Monday, October 22, 2012

RIP, Russell Means

The libertarian movement has lost one of its champions today. I have written about Russell Means in the past, here and here.

Russell Means

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Russell Means

Means in 1987
Born Russell Charles Means
November 10, 1939
Wanblee, South Dakota, U.S.
Died October 22, 2012 (aged 72)
Porcupine, South Dakota, U.S.
Occupation Activist, politician, actor, writer, musician
Years active 1968–2012
Spouse(s) Pearl Means (three previous marriages)
A total of 10 children
Russell Charles Means (November 10, 1939 – October 22, 2012) was an Oglala Sioux activist for the rights of Native American people. He became a prominent member of the American Indian Movement (AIM) after joining the organization in 1968, and helped organize notable events that attracted national and international media coverage. The organization split in 1993, in part over the 1975 murder of Anna Mae Aquash, the leading woman activist in AIM.[1]
Means was active in international issues of indigenous peoples, including working with groups in Central and South America, and with the United Nations for recognition of their rights. He was active in politics at his native Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and at the state and national level.
Beginning an acting career in 1992, he appeared in numerous films and released his own music CD. He published his autobiography Where White Men Fear to Tread in 1995.


Early life

Means was born in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, a community located in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, to Theodora Feather and Harold "Hank" Means.[2] He was baptized Oyate Wacinyapin, which means "works for the people" in the Lakota language. His Oglala Sioux parents met as students at an Indian boarding school.[2]
In 1942, when Russell was three, the Means family resettled in the San Francisco Bay Area, seeking to escape the poverty and problems of the reservation. His father worked at the shipyard. Means grew up in the Bay area, graduating in 1958 from San Leandro High School in San Leandro, California.[3] He attended four colleges but did not graduate from any of them. [4] In his 1995 autobiography, Means recounted a harsh childhood; his father was alcoholic and he himself fell into years of "truancy, crime and drugs" before finding purpose in the American Indian Movement in Minneapolis.[5]
His father died in 1967, and in his 20's, Means lived in several Indian reservations throughout the United States while searching for work. While at the Rosebud Indian Reservation in south-central South Dakota, he developed severe vertigo. Physicians at the reservation clinic believed that he had been brought in inebriated. After they refused to examine him for several days, Means was finally diagnosed with a concussion due to a presumed fist fight in a saloon. A visiting specialist later discovered that the reservation doctors had overlooked a common ear infection, which cost Means the hearing in one ear.[6]
After recovering from the infection, Means worked for a year in the Office of Economic Opportunity, where he came to know several legal activists who were managing legal action on behalf of the Lakota people. After a dispute with his supervisor, Means left Rosebud for Cleveland, Ohio. In Cleveland, he worked with Native American community leaders against the backdrop of the American Civil Rights Movement.[6]

Involvement with the American Indian Movement

Means participated—together with his father—in the 1964 Alcatraz occupation. In 1968 at age 29, Means joined the American Indian Movement (AIM), where he rose to become a prominent leader.[7] In 1970, Means was appointed AIM's first national director, and the organization began a period of increasing protests and activism.[8]


On Thanksgiving Day 1970, Means and other AIM activists staged their first protest in Boston: they seized the Mayflower II, a replica ship of the Mayflower, to protest the Puritans' and United States' mistreatment of Native Americans.[8] Later that year, Means was one of the leaders of AIM's takeover of Mount Rushmore, a federal monument.
In 1972, he participated in AIM's occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) headquarters in Washington, D.C. Many confidential records were taken or destroyed, and more than $2 million in damages was done to the building.
In 1973, Dennis Banks and Charles Camp led AIM's occupation of Wounded Knee, which became the group's most well-known action. [8] Means appeared as a spokesman and prominent leader as well. The armed standoff of more than 300 Lakota and AIM activists with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and state law enforcement lasted for 71 days. A visiting Cherokee from North Carolina and an Oglala Lakota activist from Pine Ridge Reservation were killed in April 1973. Earlier an FBI agent was shot and became paralyzed from his wounds.

Indian politics

In 1974, Means resigned from AIM to run for the presidency of his native Oglala Sioux Tribe (OST) against the incumbent Richard Wilson. The official vote count showed Wilson winning by more than 200 votes. Residents complained of intimidation by Wilson's private militia. The report of a government investigation confirmed problems in the election, but in a related court challenge to the results of the election, a federal court upheld the results.
In the late 1970s, Means turned to an international forum on issues of rights for indigenous peoples. He worked with the United Nations to establish the offices of the International Indian Treaty Council in 1977. At the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, he assisted in the organization of community institutions, such as the KILI radio station and the Porcupine Health Clinic in Porcupine, South Dakota.

Splits in AIM

In the 1980s, AIM divided into several competing factions. The division was in part over differences among members regarding support for the indigenous peoples in Nicaragua, a nation then led by a socialist government. Means announced his support for the Miskito group MISURASATA (later known as YATAMA), which was allied with the Contras. He traveled to the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua in 1985 and 1986 on fact-finding tours. Some members of AIM supported the Sandinistas of the national government, although they had forced removal of thousands of Miskito from their traditional territory. At that time, the Grand Governing Council of AIM, based in Minnesota, asked Means to cease representing himself as a leader of AIM.[citation needed] Other chapters of AIM continued to support Means.
On January 8, 1988, Means held a press conference to announce his retirement from AIM (for the sixth time), saying it had achieved its goals.[9] That January, the AIM Grand Governing Council, headed by the Bellecourt brothers, released a press release noting this was the sixth resignation by Means since 1974, and asking the press to "never again report either that he is a founder of the American Indian Movement, or [that] he is a leader of the American Indian Movement". The AIM General Governing Council noted there were many open issues and legislation regarding Native Americans for which they were continuing to work.[10]
In 1993, the organization divided officially into two main factions: AIM Grand Governing Council, based in Minnesota, which has the legal right to use the name; and American Indian Movement of Colorado, based in Colorado and allied with Means.

Anna Mae Aquash

On 3 November 1999, Means and Robert Pictou-Branscombe, a maternal cousin of Aquash from Canada, held a press conference in Denver at the Federal Building to discuss the slow progress of the government's investigation into Aquash's murder. It had been under investigation both by the Denver police, as Aquash had been kidnapped from there, and by the FBI, as she had been taken across state lines and killed on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Both Branscombe and Means accused Vernon Bellecourt, a high-ranking leader of AIM, of having ordered the execution of Aquash. Means said that Clyde Bellecourt, a founder of AIM, had ensured that it was carried out at the Pine Ridge Reservation. Means said that an AIM tribunal had banned the Bellecourt brothers but tried to keep the reason for the dissension internal to protect AIM.[11]
The Associated Press (AP) reporter Robert Weller noted that this was the first time that an AIM leader active at the time of Aquash's death had publicly implicated AIM in her murder. There had long been rumors.[12] Means and Branscombe accused three indigenous people: Arlo Looking Cloud, Theda Nelson Clark and John Graham, of having been directly involved in the kidnapping and murder of Aquash.[11] The two men were indicted in 2003 and convicted in separate trials in 2004 and 2010, respectively. By then in a nursing home, Clark was not indicted.
As of 2004, Means' website states that he was a board member of the Colorado AIM chapter, which is affiliated with AIM-Autonomous Chapters.[13]

Other political involvement

Russell Means speaks against the War on Terror at a DC Anti-War Network's anti-war protest on November 11, 2001.
Since the late 1970s, Means often supported libertarian political causes, in contrast with several of the other leaders of AIM. In 1987, Means ran for nomination of President of the United States under the Libertarian Party, and attracted considerable support within the party, finishing 2nd (31.41%) at the 1987 Libertarian National Convention.[14] He lost the nomination to Congressman Ron Paul.[15]
In 2001, Means began an independent candidacy for Governor of New Mexico. His campaign failed to satisfy procedural requirements and he was not selected for the ballot. In the 2004 and 2008 Presidential Elections, Means supported independent Ralph Nader.
Nearly thirty years after his first candidacy, Means ran for president of the Oglala Sioux in 2004 with the help of Twila Lebeaux, losing to Cecilia Fire Thunder, the first woman elected president of the tribe. She also defeated the incumbent John Yellow Bird Steele.[16]
Since the late 20th century, there has been a debate in the United States over the appropriate term for the indigenous peoples of North America. Some want to be called Native American; others prefer American Indian. Means said that he preferred "American Indian", arguing that it derives not from explorers' confusion of the people with those of India, but from the Italian expression in Dio, meaning "in God".[17][18] In addition, Means noted that since treaties and other legal documents in relation to the United States government use "Indian", continuing use of the term could help today's American Indian people forestall any attempts by others to use legal loopholes in the struggle over land and treaty rights.
Following the non-binding United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in September 2007, a group of American Indian activists presented a letter to the U.S. State Department, indicating they were withdrawing from all treaties with the U.S. Government. In December, they began contacting foreign governments to solicit support for energy projects on the territory.
On December 20, 2007, Means announced the withdrawal by a small group of Lakota Sioux from all treaties with the United States government.[19] Means and a delegation of activists declared the Republic of Lakotah a sovereign nation, with property rights over thousands of square miles in South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana.[20][dead link] Means said that his group does not "represent collaborators, the Vichy Indians and those tribal governments set up by the United States of America".[21]
On January 8, 2008 the elected leaders President Rodney Bordeaux of the 25,000-member Rosebud Sioux Tribe, and Chairman Joseph Brings Plenty of the 8,500-member Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, said that Means did not speak for their members or for any elected Lakota tribal governments. While acknowledging problems with the federal government's implementation of treaties, they opposed his plan to renounce treaties with the United States. They said the issue instead was to enforce existing treaties.[22][dead link] [23]
In January 2012, he announced his endorsement of Ron Paul in his bid for President.[24]

Other activities


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 appeared as Arrowhead in the made-for-TV movie The Pathfinder (1996), his second appearance in a movie adapted from a novel by James Fenimore Cooper. He appeared in Natural Born Killers (1994), as Jim Thorpe in Windrunner: A Spirited Journey, as Sitting Bull in Buffalo Girls (1995), and had a cameo in the miniseries Into the West (2005).
He was a voice actor in the animated film Pocahontas (1995) and its sequel Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World (1998), playing the title character's father, Chief Powhatan. Means appeared as Billy Twofeathers in Thomas & the Magic Railroad (2000).
Means starred in Pathfinder, a 2007 movie about Vikings' battling Native Americans in the New World. Recently Means co-starred in Rez Bomb from director Steven Lewis Simpson, the first feature filmed on his native Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He stars with Tamara Feldman and Trent Ford and Chris Robinson.
He also appeared as a character in the Access Software adventure game Under a Killing Moon.[25] In 2004 Means made a guest appearance on the HBO program Curb Your Enthusiasm. Means played Wandering Bear, an American Indian with skills in landscaping and herbal medicine.


In 1995, Means published an autobiography, Where White Men Fear to Tread, written with Marvin J. Wolf. He recounted his own family's problems: his alcoholic father, and his own "fall into truancy, crime and drugs" before he discovered the American Indian Movement.[5] The book drew criticism from a number of reviewers.[26][27][28][5][29]


Russell Means recorded a CD entitled Electric Warrior under indie label SOAR.[30] Songs include "Une Gente Indio", "Hey You, Hey Indian", "Wounded Knee Set Us Free", and "Indian Cars Go Far".

Representation in other media

The American pop artist Andy Warhol painted 18 individual portraits of Russell Means in his 1976 American Indian Series. The Dayton Art Institute holds one of the Warhol portraits of Means in its collection.[31]

Personal life

Means was married five times; the first four marriages ended in divorce. He was married to his fifth wife, Pearl Means until his death. He had a total of ten children.[2]
On December 29, 1997, Means was arrested for assault and battery of his 56-year-old (then father-in-law) Leon Grant, a member of the Dine (Navajo) Nation. AIM Governing General Council issued a press release to reiterate its separation from Means.[27]

Final years and death

In August 2011, Means was diagnosed with esophageal cancer.[32][33] He told the Associated Press that he was rejecting "mainstream medical treatments in favor of traditional American Indian remedies and alternative treatments away from his home on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation".[34] In late September, Means reported that through tomotherapy, the tumor had diminished greatly.[35] Later he said that his tumor was "95% gone."[36] On December 5 of that year, Means stated that he "beat cancer," that he had beat "the death penalty."[37]
The following year, however, his health continued to decline and he died on October 22, 2012, less than a month before his 73rd birthday.[38]


  1. ^ Native American Calling, 3 November 1999, Native American Public Telecommunications, carried at News From Indian Country. Harlan McKosato said, "... her [Aquash's] death has divided the American Indian Movement ...", accessed 16 July 2011
  2. ^ a b c Russell Means biography, Film Reference Website
  3. ^ Stark, Jessica. "Colonialism perfected on the American Indian: Activist Russell Means to offer insight, experience", Rice University: press release dated November 14, 2007. Accessed November 20, 2007.
  4. ^ McFadden, Robert. "Russell Means, Who Revived Warrior Image of American Indian, Dies at 72". New York Times. Retrieved 22 October 2012.
  5. ^ a b c Patricia Holt, "A Rebel's Justice: American Indian Movement leader Russell Means tells his own story of rage and healing", San Francisco Chronicle, 5 November 1995
  6. ^ a b Where White Men Fear to Tread (1997)
  7. ^
  8. ^ a b c "Alcatraz is Not an Island: Indian Activism". PBS. 2002. Retrieved 2009-03-17.
  9. ^ "Indian activist Russell Means says he's retiring from AIM", AP, Attachment 3, Articles on Means, AMERICAN INDIAN MOVEMENT GRAND GOVERNING COUNCIL
  10. ^ AIM on Russell Means, Attachment 2, accessed 17 June 2011
  11. ^ a b "Russ Means holds press conference on Annie Mae's murder 11-3-99: Accuses Vernon and Clyde Bellecourt of ordering her Execution", News From Indian Country, 3 November 1999, accessed 16 July 2011
  12. ^ Robert Weller, "AQUASH MURDER CASE: AIM leaders point fingers at each other", AP, at News From Indian Country, 4 November 1999, accessed 17 July 2011
  13. ^ Colorado AIM, Official Website
  14. ^ "Freedom is for Everyone": Seattle Story; Mike Acree, Convention Reflections, Golden Gate Libertarian Newsletter, July 2000.
  15. ^ Caldwell, Christopher (2007-07-22). "The Antiwar, Anti-Abortion, Anti-Drug-Enforcement-Administration, Anti-Medicare Candidacy of Dr. Ron Paul". The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved 2007-07-21.
  16. ^ Sam Hurst, "Cecilia Fire Thunder a 'person of character'", Rapid City Journal, 18 December 2005, accessed 5 June 2011
  17. ^ Means, Russell. "Speech: For America to Live, Europe Must Die."."In dio" is found under the speeches tab.
  18. ^ "I detest writing.". Black Hills International Survival Gathering,. First Nations Issues of Consequence. July 1980. Retrieved 2009-03-17. "Columbus called the tribal people he met "Indio," from the Italian in dio , meaning "in God.""
  19. ^ "Descendants of Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse break away from US", AFP: Agence France-Presse, 21 December 2007, accessed 17 June 2011
  20. ^ Bill Harlan, "Lakota group secedes from U.S.", Rapid City Journal, December 20, 2007
  21. ^ Faith Bremner, "Lakota group pushes for new nation", Argus Leader, Washington Bureau, December 20, 2007
  22. ^ Bill Harlan, "Two tribal leaders reject secession, Rosebud and Cheyenne River tribes don't support Russell Means' plan", Rapid City Journal, 7 January 2008
  23. ^ Gale Courey Toensing, "Withdrawal from US treaties enjoys little support from tribal leaders", Indian Country Today, January 04, 2008
  24. ^ "Russell Means Endorses Ron Paul", Youtube, January 26, 2012
  25. ^ Tex Murphy series:Under a Killing Moon Microsoft Game Studios
  26. ^ Brent Staples, "Review: Russell Means, Where White Men Fear to Tread, New York Times Book Review, 15 October 1995
  27. ^ a b Malcolm Brenner, "AIM seeks distance from Russell Means", The Gallup Independent, 8 January 1998
  28. ^ Malcolm Brenner, "Where White Men Fear to Tread", Attachment 9, Collection of articles on Means, reproduced at AMERICAN INDIAN MOVEMENT GRAND GOVERNING COUNCIL, accessed 17 June 2011
  29. ^ Mari Wadsworth, "Russell Means Business: From Indian Activist to Hollywood celeb", Tucson Weekly, 15 December 1997
  30. ^ Russell Means, Electric Warrior Sound of America Recordings
  31. ^ "AMERICAN INDIAN SERIES (RUSSELL MEANS), 1976". The Dayton Art Institute. Retrieved 2008-03-13.
  32. ^ "Russell Means: I'll come back as lightning". August 18, 2011. Retrieved October 12, 2011.
  33. ^ "American Indian Activist Means Battling Cancer". Associated Press. August 18, 2011. Retrieved October 12, 2011.
  34. ^ Lammers, Dirk (October 22, 2012). "Tribal spokeswoman says former American Indian Movement activist Russell Means dies at 72". The Washington Post. Associated Press (Tribune Company).
  35. ^ Rickert, Levi (September 23, 2011). "Russell Means Updates His Condition: Tumor Diminished Significantly". Native News Network. Retrieved October 12, 2011.
  36. ^ Russell Means (June 27, 2012). Infowars Nightly News. World News. Event occurs at 9:45. Retrieved October 22, 2012.
  37. ^ "Russell Means". TV Tropes. Retrieved October 22, 2012.
  38. ^ McLellan, Dennis (October 22, 2012). "Russell Means dies at 72; American Indian rights activist, actor". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved October 22, 2012.

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