Russell C. Means, the charismatic Oglala Sioux who helped revive the warrior image of the American Indian in the 1970s with guerrilla-tactic protests that called attention to the nation’s history of injustices against its indigenous peoples, died on Monday at his ranch in Porcupine, S.D., on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was 72.
The cause was esophageal cancer, which had spread recently to his tongue, lymph nodes and lungs, said Glenn Morris, Mr. Means’s legal representative. Told in the summer of 2011 that the cancer was inoperable, Mr. Means had already resolved to shun mainstream medical treatments in favor of herbal and other native remedies….
He rose to national attention as a leader of the American Indian Movement in 1970 by directing a band of Indian protesters who seized the Mayflower II ship replica at Plymouth, Mass., on Thanksgiving Day. The boisterous confrontation between Indians and costumed “pilgrims” attracted network television coverage and made Mr. Means an overnight hero to dissident Indians and sympathetic whites.
Later, he orchestrated an Indian prayer vigil atop the federal monument of sculptured presidential heads at Mount Rushmore, S.D., to dramatize Lakota claims to Black Hills land. In 1972, he organized cross-country caravans converging on Washington to protest a century of broken treaties, and led an occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He also attacked the “Chief Wahoo” mascot of the Cleveland Indians baseball team, a toothy Indian caricature that he called racist and demeaning. It is still used.
And in a 1973 protest covered by the national news media for months, he led hundreds of Indians and white sympathizers in an occupation of Wounded Knee, S.D., site of the 1890 massacre of some 350 Lakota men, women and children in the last major conflict of the American Indian wars. The protesters demanded strict federal adherence to old Indian treaties, and an end to what they called corrupt tribal governments.
In the ensuing 71-day standoff with federal agents, thousands of shots were fired, two Indians were killed and an agent was paralyzed. Mr. Means and his fellow protest leader Dennis Banks were charged with assault, larceny and conspiracy. But after a long federal trial in Minnesota in 1974, with the defense raising current and historic Indian grievances, the case was dismissed by a judge for prosecutorial misconduct….
Undeterred, he led a caravan of Sioux and Cheyenne into a gathering of 500 people commemorating the centennial of Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s last stand at Little Big Horn in Montana in 1876, the nation’s most famous defeat of the Indian wars. To pounding drums, Mr. Means and his followers mounted a speaker’s platform, joined hands and did a victory dance, sung in Sioux Lakota, titled “Custer Died for Your Sins.”
Russell Charles Means was born on the Pine Ridge reservation on Nov. 10, 1939, the oldest of four sons of Harold and Theodora Feather Means. The Anglo-Saxon surname was that of a great-grandfather. When he was 3, the family moved to the San Francisco Bay area, where his father, a welder and auto mechanic, worked in wartime shipyards.
Russell attended public schools in Vallejo and San Leandro High School, where he faced racial taunts, had poor grades and barely graduated in 1958. He drifted into delinquency, drugs, alcoholism and street fights. He also attended four colleges, including Arizona State at Tempe, but did not earn a degree. For much of the 1960s he rambled about the West, working as a janitor, printer, cowboy and dance instructor.
In 1969, he took a job with the Rosebud Sioux tribal council in South Dakota. Within months he moved to Cleveland and became founding director of a government-financed center helping Native Americans adapt to urban life. He also met Mr. Banks, who had recently co-founded the American Indian Movement. In 1970 Mr. Means became the movement’s national director, and over the next decade his actions made him a household name.
In 1985 and 1986, he went to Nicaragua to support indigenous Miskito Indians whose autonomy was threatened by the leftist Sandinista government. He reported Sandinista atrocities against the Indians and urged the Reagan administration to aid the victims. Millions in aid went to some anti-Sandinista groups, but a leader of the Miskito Indian rebels, Brooklyn Rivera, said his followers had not received any of that aid.
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