A powerful, eloquent voice for Indigenous peoples worldwide was silenced on October 22. Russell Means – activist, actor, musician, writer, boxer and political firebrand – succumbed to cancer at his home in Porcupine on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. He was 72 years old.
Means gained notoriety in the early 1970s when he led the American Indian Movement’s occupation of Wounded Knee in South Dakota to protest the US government’s neglect of its numerous treaties with Native groups across the nation. Earlier, he had organized protests at Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills and at Plymouth, Massachusetts, where AIM seized the Mayflower II, a replica of the ship that first brought English and Dutch colonists to North America. He also participated in the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington in 1972. It was for these acts that he was called “the biggest, baddest, meanest, angriest, most famous American Indian activist of the late 20th century”. He was also called the most famous Indian since Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.
Means turned to acting in his 50s, appearing in The Last of the Mohicans, in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers and in Disney’s animated film Pocahontas as Powhatan. He also appeared as a gardener/healer in Curb Your Enthusiasm. He released an album of angry poetry played to an electronic beat in the 1990s. He published his autobiography Where White Men Fear to Tread in 1995.
I first met Russell Means on the telephone in 2008 while researching my documentary film, Reel Injun. I remember him telling me the story of him watching Sacheen Littlefeather refusing the Best Actor Oscar on behalf of Marlon Brando for The Godfather while being surrounded and shot by US federal troops at Wounded Knee. His story was so good and I got so excited that I hung up on him almost mid-sentence.
I finally met him in person at his ranch on the Pine Ridge Reservation months later while we were filming. When we arrived he was in the middle of a meeting outside his ranch. We waited until it finished and then he invited us into his home. He was an imposing figure, well over six feet and still healthy nearing 70. His home was being renovated. It was modest with a tiny kitchen and a well-used office. Several fine horses grazed in a field outside his yard.
He suggested a space behind his desk for his interview. I refused and moved his desk. I had brought a gift of tobacco for him, which he accepted with a quiet nod. “Cree, eh?” he asked, genuinely interested. He reminded me of Cree Elders I had interviewed. When I asked my first question, he proceeded to answer almost all the other ones I had prepared. He was a born storyteller. The “interview” lasted almost three hours. I remember him telling me at one point: “Marlon Brando was the greatest white man who ever lived!” There was no argument from me.
The next day we met at Wounded Knee and he shared his experiences of those 71 days and nights. “They meant business. They had .50 calibres,” he said of the government forces. We walked by the graves of the victims of Wounded Knee from 1890 and 1972. I felt a real sadness in him as he pointed out the gravestones of people he had known and those his people remembered. He was very generous with his time and completely unlike the Means who was detested by so many.
I met him again in Los Angeles at a screening of Reel Injun. I was taking questions from a very polite crowd and the session was just winding down when all of a sudden his voice rang out. “Can I say something?!” He then proceeded to tear up the film for 25 minutes with me standing next to him. He finished with, “Reel Injun is a pretty good film. White people will love it.”
I met him again for the final time in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I hadn’t noticed him in the dark theatre. His voice rang out again, interrupting the proceedings. He spoke his mind, but this time he seemed to have warmed to our film.
There were two kinds of Indians in this world – those who hated Russell Means and those who loved him. Means never minced words. And few ever minced their words about him.
Russell Means is survived by 10 children and his fifth wife Pearl.