Native Sun News: Activist Russell Means succumbs to cancer

Oglala Lakota Russell Charles Means, longtime activist, actor, author, community organizer and sometimes musician, made his journey to the spirit world early on the morning of Oct. 22 at his home near Porcupine on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Means was just weeks shy of his 73rd birthday. PHOTO ASSOCIATED PRESS

Means succumbs to cancer
By Brandon Ecoffey
Native Sun News Staff Writer

PORCUPINE — The family of Russell Means announced early Monday, Oct. 22, that the longtime indigenous rights activist had passed away.

He was 72.

In a statement, the family said, “Our Dad and husband now walks among our ancestors. He began his journey home to the spirit world at 4:44 a.m. with the Morning Star.” Means, who had battled esophageal cancer for well over a year, succumbed to the disease while resting at his ranch just outside of Porcupine on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Late last year, Means believed that he had rid himself of the disease, announcing that “I won the battle, man — I’m cancer-free. The doctor told me the day before yesterday, ‘Mr. Means, you will not die of cancer.” However, Means announced in an email to Native Sun News two weeks ago doctors had told him Aug. 20 the disease had returned.

Means, who is Oglala Lakota, was born on the Pine Ridge Reservation on Nov. 10, 1939, to Theodora Feather and Harold “Hank” Means. When Russell was three, the Means family relocated to California where Russell would spend the remainder of his childhood. In his 20s, Means would spend time living on multiple reservations across the United States.

In 1964, Means began to become more politically involved when he participated with his father and the group Indians of All Tribes in the occupation of Alcatraz in the San Francisco Bay. The occupation lasted for 19 months and is widely considered to be the event that sparked the Indigenous Civil Rights movement in the United States.

Means’ experience at the occupation left a lasting impression on him that would lead him down a path eventually resulting in him becoming one of the most influential and well-known Native Americans in modern history.

In 1968, at the age of 29, Means joined the American Indian Movement and quickly rose to prominence. In 1970, he was named AIM’s first national director, overseeing the growth of an organization that brought national attention to Native American issues for the first time since the pre-reservation era.

In addition, AIM is credited with re-establishing a feeling of pride among America’s indigenous peoples that continues to flourish today — all of which can be tied to Means and the work he did with the organization in the 1970s.

In 1970, Means, along with other AIM members, burst into the consciousness of mainstream America when they conducted their first major protest in Plymouth, Mass., seizing a replica of the original Mayflower in protest of the mistreatment of Native Americans throughout history. During that same year, Means led a protest and a takeover of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, again seeking attention for issues facing Indian country.

The takeovers in Plymouth and at Mount Rushmore were just the beginning, however.

In 1972, Means organized a cross-country drive to Washington, D.C., that eventually became known as the “Trail of Broken Treaties.” The event led to one of the more notorious displays of social resistance by AIM, when Means led a group of protesters in yet another occupation, this time at the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C. The group destroyed confidential records and caused more than $2 million in damage to the building, an event that Means detailed vividly in his autobiography, “Where White Men Fear to Tread.”

Although previous takeovers were somewhat effective in getting mainstream America to begin to look toward Indian country, it wasn’t until early 1973 that AIM kicked down the door of mainstream America when they took over the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre by force.

The armed standoff on the Pine Ridge Reservation — which lasted 71 days — between AIM members and law enforcement drew national news coverage, and gave the organization a forum to speak from that was directly broadcast into the living rooms of everyday Americans. No longer were the issues facing Indian country something that could be swept under the rug — they were now a national problem that needed to be addressed.

Although controversial, there is no denying that Means played a vital role in shifting the conversation surrounding indigenous civil rights from that of a local issue to the national and eventually international arenas.

In addition to his work on the national scene, Means did much to help his own people in South Dakota. He helped to establish the Pine Ridge Reservation’s KILI Radio, which serves western South Dakota’s reservations, and the Porcupine Health Clinic.

In 1997, Means set out to establish a Lakota language and cultural immersion school for young children residing on Pine Ridge. The school project was still developing at the time of his death.

Means also was behind the establishment of the Republic of Lakotah in 2007. The Republic of Lakotah is a small delegation of Lakota activists who have denounced all treaties made between tribes and the federal government that represents itself as a sovereign nation, and claims to have the same status as federally recognized tribal nations. The United States government, however, has yet to formally recognize the Republic as an independent nation.

Means was also an accomplished actor, having appeared in several major motion pictures, including “The Last of the Mohicans” in 1992 and “Natural Born Killers” in 1994.

He would also go on to write an autobiography with Marvin J. Wolf entitled “Where White Men Fear to Tread,” which gained widespread acclaim and led to The Washington Post’s description of Means as “one of the biggest, baddest, meanest, angriest, most famous American Indian activists of the late twentieth century.”

To those who have studied the evolution of the American Indian as a historical and cultural image in the United States, Russell Means stands as one of the most influential and defining characters in all of history. He is regarded as one of the people who made it both OK and fashionable to be a Native person in America.

On the day of his death, Oglala Sioux Tribe President John Yellow Bird Steele in a statement credited Means with “Helping instill pride of being Indian throughout Indian Country.”

Means made it a focus of several of his speeches to denounce the use of mascots such as “Chief Wahoo” of the Cleveland Indians and other culturally and racially insensitive representations of Native American people.

“With Russ it wasn’t always peaches and cream: You got what you saw,” said Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota and former editor and publisher of the Lakota Times during Means’ heyday. “We had our differences, but in the end I felt that he always stood up for what he believed and was pretty fearless in doing it. He was brash and he loved the camera, and I guess that is why he gravitated from activist to actor later in his life. My deepest condolences go out to his wife and family,” he said.

Means had established himself as a force in both Native American and mainstream American culture and will leave a void that will be nearly impossible to fill.

Means, who had a total of 10 children, is survived by his wife, Pearl Daniels Means, and countless extended family members and friends.

(Contact Brandon Ecoffey at

(Editor’s Note: Michelle Means, daughter of Russell Means, confirmed on the evening of Monday, Oct. 22, that Edstrom & Rooks Funeral Services at Serenity Springs in Rapid City will be handling the funeral arrangements. Russell’s wake services will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 24, at Little Wound School in Kyle. On Thursday, Oct. 25, his ashes will be taken to the Paha Sapa, or Black Hills, for inurnment. No other details had been made available at press time.)

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