Russell Means may be most recognizable as an actor from from movies like Last of the Mohicans, Natural Born Killers and Pocahontas and popular shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, Nash Bridges to miniseries like Into the West, but the bulk of his life’s work was dedicated to AIM, the American Indian Movement, which he joined at age 30 and became a vocal, militant and strident advocate for equality and rights for the indigenous American people.
On his website RussellMeansFreedom.com, his family made the following statement:
Hello our relatives. Our dad and husband, now walks among our ancestors. He began his journey to the spirit world at 4:44 am, with the Morning Star, at his home and ranch in Porcupine.
The LA Times explains one of the most important events in the life of this iconic man:
In 1970, he was among a group of American Indian activists who occupied Mount Rushmore, where he infamously urinated on the top of the stone head of George Washington — an act he later said symbolized “how most Indians feel about the faces chiseled out of our holy land.”
That November, he joined fellow AIM members and other Native Americans in taking over a replica of the Mayflower in Plymouth, Mass. And in 1972 he participated in the seven-day occupation and trashing of the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C.
But the controversial and flamboyant activist with the trademark long braids gained his greatest notoriety at the trading post hamlet of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
The occupation of Wounded Knee by more than 200 AIM-led activists began in late February 1973 in the wake of a failed attempt to impeach tribal president Richard Wilson, whose Oglala critics accused him of corruption and abuse of power and said his private militia suppressed political opponents.
After the takeover of Wounded Knee, the historic site of the 7th Calvary’s large-scale massacre of Sioux men, women and children in 1890, the area was cordoned off by about 300 U.S. marshals and FBI agents, who were armed with automatic weapons and aided by nine armored personnel carriers.
Among the occupiers’ demands were that congressional hearings be held to protect historical benefits held in trust by the U.S. government.
The occupation resulted in two men killed and one a U.S. Marshall paralyzed, explains the LA Times, and after many years of attempts to prosecute the occupiers, the case was eventually thrown out due to prosecutorial misconduct.
While some condemned the occupation, Means had this to say about its importance: “Wounded Knee restored our dignity and pride as a people,” he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2002. “It sparked a cultural renaissance, a spiritual revolution that grounded us.”
Russell Means will be sorely missed both in the activist world and in Hollywood.
For more about Means’ compelling life story, read the full LA Times Obituary.