Russell Means

views updated May 29 2018

Russell Means

Russell Means (born 1939) led the American Indian Movement (AIM) in a 1973 armed seizure of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, site of the previous massacre of Sioux by Seventh U.S. Cavalry troops on December 29, 1890. With co-leaders Dennis Banks and Leonard Peltier, Means and AIM held off hundreds of federal agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation for seventy-one days before their surrender.

Russell C. Means has been an outspoken Indian rights activist for more than two decades. The organizer of numerous protests against the U.S. government's treatment of Native Americans and a major figure in the American Indian Movement (AIM), Means is perhaps best known for leading a 71-day siege at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, which drew national attention to Indian-rights issues in the early 1970s. The head of the American Indian Anti-Defamation League since 1988, Means continues to fight for the unique identity and independence of Native Americans.

Russell Charles Means, who would use the traditional term "Lakota" rather than the term "Sioux", which he views as a derogatory white word, was born November 10, 1939, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the oldest son of Harold ("Hank") Means, a mixed-blood Oglala Sioux and Theodora (Feather) Means, a full-blood Yankton Sioux. He attended the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) school on the reservation and later public schools in Vallejo, California. During his high school years, he transferred from the racially mixed Vallejo school to the almost all-white San Leandro High School where he experienced daily ethnic taunting. Not knowing how else to respond, Means at first fought back and then retreated into drugs and delinquency. After barely graduating from high school, he worked through various jobs and attended five colleges without graduating. He spent much of the 1960s drifting throughout the west, working as a cowboy, day laborer, and at an advertising firm. In 1969 he moved from a position on the Rosebud Sioux tribal council on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota to the directorship of the government-funded American Indian Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

In Cleveland Means met Dennis Banks, one of the cofounders of the newly organized American Indian Movement, a militant Indian civil rights group. Inspired by Banks and his movement, he set up AIM's second chapter in Cleveland. Means became a national media figure representing dissident Indians on Thanksgiving Day in 1970 when he and a small group of other Indians confronted costumed "Pilgrims" on the Mayflower II in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Dressed in combination western and Indian style, he became an effective symbol for AIM. Eloquent and charismatic, he inspired support from local Indian people while his inflammatory statements riled non-Indians.

That same year, Means participated in a prayer vigil on Mount Rushmore, a symbolic demonstration of Lakota claims to Black Hills land. His next protest was to file a $9 million dollar lawsuit against the Cleveland Indians baseball club for use of Chief Wahoo as a mascot, asserting in the suit that the symbol demeaned Native Americans. This latter action provoked Cleveland ball club fans, and led to Means's decision to resign his position at the Cleveland Center in 1972. He returned to South Dakota and participated in further activities intended to bring attention to Indian rights.

In February, 1972, Means led 1,300 angry Indians into the small town of Gordon, Nebraska, to protest the suspicious death of Raymond Yellow Thunder. The demonstration convinced town authorities to conduct a second autopsy, which eventually led to the indictment of two white townsmen for manslaughter. The Indian protest gained further success when the city council suspended a police officer accused of molesting jailed Indian women and then organized a multiracial human rights council. Violence against Indians increased all over the country that summer, leading to further defensiveness among local Indian people who felt they needed to arm themselves if they were to be the targets of murderous attacks.

At the annual Rosebud Sun Dance celebration, Means helped plan a mass demonstration to occur in Washington D.C. during election week of 1972. He urged a march to demand a federal law that would make it a crime to kill an Indian, even if it had to be added as an amendment to the Endangered Species Act. A series of cross-country caravans called "The Trail of Broken Treaties" arrived in Washington November 2 only to find that the adequate housing promised by the Department of the Interior was in fact crowded and rodent-infested. Feeling that the government officials sent out to investigate were officious and patronizing, Means then led the group to the Bureau of Indian Affairs where they successfully seized the offices and renamed the building the Native American Embassy. On Novembe…U.S. District Court Judge ordered the group's forcible eviction. Angry and frustrated, the Indians destroyed furniture and equipment and removed files they felt exploited Indian people. The next day the group agreed to leave the building peaceably after government officials promised to investigate federal programs affecting Indians and to consider the issue of Indian self-government. The government also offered $66,000 to cover travel expenses.

Occupies Town of Historic Massacre

When Means returned to South Dakota, he learned that the president of the Oglala Tribal Council, Dick Wilson, had obtained a court order prohibiting members of AIM from attending public meetings on the reservation. Wilson, a conservative opposed to the extreme activities of AIM, received government support to increase his police force, and had Means arrested twice for challenging the court order. When a white man was charged for second degree manslaughter instead of murder for the stabbing death of an Indian man, Means was among the leaders of a protest through the town of Custer where court was held. He and nearly 80 others were arrested for rioting and arson. The internal tribal governance conflict escalated as traditional leaders requested AIM's help in getting rid of council president Wilson, whom some viewed as representative of Washington bureaucracy. On February 27, 1973, Means and a group of nearly 200 armed supporters occupied the community of Wounded Knee, the site of the 1890 massacre of some 350 Sioux men, women, and children by the U.S. military. Tensions mounted as heavily armed FBI agents and federal marshals surrounded the area. More than a month later, Means agreed to fly to Washington to negotiate an agreement to end the siege, but the government refused to negotiate until all arms were laid down. Means refused to the unconditional surrender and left the meeting. He was arrested and detained for the remainder of the siege when he announced his intention to return to Wounded Knee. On May 8, 1973, the remaining Indians surrendered when the government agreed to meet with tribal elders to begin an investigation into tribal government, which had been accused, under Wilson, of ignoring the tribal constitution, among other things. Highly publicized in the national media, the ten-week siege became known as "Wounded Knee II" and garnered the support of many white Americans, including several Hollywood personalities.

Means ran against Wilson in the 1974 election of tribal council president while under federal indictment for actions during the Wounded Knee occupation. He lost the election, receiving 1530 votes to Wilson's 1709, but claimed that his election results indicated strong support for AIM causes on the reservation. His trial opened on February 12, 1974, and continued until September 16, when U.S. District Court Judge Fred Nichol dismissed the charges against Means and Banks and denounced the prosecution's handling of the case, which had included the use of information obtained from a member Means's defense team by a paid FBI informant. When asked years later about the beneficial results of the Wounded Knee occupation, Means related a story of watching three little Indian boys playing, one pretending to be Banks, one pretending to be Means, and the third refusing to be Wilson. Means felt that the protests influenced the development of a different sense of Indian identity: that "government" Indians were considered traitors.

During the Wounded Knee occupation, Means was shot by a BIA officer. In the following six years, he survived four other shootings and was stabbed while serving a term in South Dakota's prison. These attempts on his life sent a message to other Indian people that they were not safe from violent attacks. In 1975 Means was indicted for a murder in a barroom brawl, but his attorney, William Kunstler, who had been one of the defense attorneys during the Wounded Knee trial, argued that the government had created such a climate of fear that Indians were armed in self-defense. The jury acquitted Means of the murder charge on August 6, 1976. He was convicted of riot charges relating to the 1973 Custer demonstration and served one month in jail. In November 1977, he served a term for rioting in a South Dakota state penitentiary.

Reclaims Indian Land at Yellow Thunder Camp

Russell Means was also among the group who occupied federal land at Yellow Thunder Camp. In April 1981, a group of Dakota AIM and traditional Lakota people established a camp on federal land in Victoria Creek Canyon, about twelve miles southwest of Rapid City, South Dakota. Named in honor of Raymond Yellow Thunder, the man murdered in Gordon, Nebraska, in 1972, the camp was established as the first step in reclaiming the Black Hills land for Lakota use. When the U.S. Forest Service denied a use permit for the camp, Means acted as a lay attorney in the complaint against the Forest Service for violating the American Indian Freedom of Religion Act of 1978. In 1985, Judge Donald O'Brien ruled in favor of the Indian camp, but a higher court overturned the decision.

After the Yellow Thunder trial, Means became involved in native rights issues in other countries, including supporting the cause of the Miskito Indians of Nicaragua. He has been associated politically with the Libertarian Party. In 1992, he turned actor, playing the role of Chingachgook in the movie The Last of the Mohicans. While on the set, Means served as liaison between Indian extras and the movie producers during a labor dispute. He claimed that he had not abandoned his role as activist. In an article in Entertainment Weekly, Means commented, "I have been asked whether my decision to act in The Last of the Mohicansmeans that I've abandoned my role as an activist. On the contrary, I see film as an extension of the path I've been on for the past 25 years—another avenue to eliminating racism."

In the spring of 1994, AIM cofounder Clyde Bellecourt accused Means of selling out the AIM cause by accepting a $35,000 settlement from the 1972 suit against the Cleveland Indians baseball organization. Means, who left the American Indian Movement in 1988, responded that his current organization, the American Indian Anti-Defamation League, would be filing another lawsuit against the ball club he never received any of the money.

Although Means generally detests writing as a European concept, he agreed to have his words published as a chapter in Marxism and Native Americans in order to communicate with a wider audience. He urged each American Indian to avoid becoming Europeanized, using traditional values to resist. He criticized the European intellectual traditions, including Christianity and capitalism, and accused the Europeans of despiritualizing the universe. He also warned that Marxism, as a European tradition, is also no solution for American Indians' problems. He concluded: "I am not a 'leader.' I am an Oglala Lakota patriot. That's all I want or need to be. And I am very comfortable with who I am."

In late 1995 Means published his autobiography Where White Men Fear to Tread: The Autobiography of Russell Means coincidentally with Native American Heritage Month. Not surprisingly the strident Means used the occasion to show his disdain for the notion of heritage month, which he finds "abhorrent," as he does the term "Native American." Means told Library Journal in a telephone interview that the term "Native American" is used to "…. describe all the prisoners of the U.S. government" and that the idea of a Native American Heritage Month is a "…. subterfuge to hide the ongoing daily genocide being practiced against my people by this United States of America." Since being recognized nationally for his reform movements and AIM activities Means had been approached numerous times to write an autobiography. At first he regarded such a proposals as "arrogant" but after undergoing treatment for alcoholism and his anger towards white America Means relented and came to believe that an autobiography would prove helpful and relevant to his cause by shedding light on the social reform movements of the turbulent Sixties and Seventies and helping to correct prevailing stereotypes of the American Indian.

The Washington Post has called Means the "…. biggest, baddest, meanest, angriest, most famous American Indian activist of the late 20th century." And Means was angry, angry at the White Man's "fascist government," the White Man's "economic exploitation," and the White Man's "despoiling of nature." Means was also angry at his own people, especially the women who would pull at his braids and tell him how "cute" they were. Means feeling his person had been violated by their actions would retaliate by pawing at their breasts while saying "Oh how cute!" By coming to grip with his emotions and anger however Means has worked through his "defects" and has come to find " …peace of mind, the exhilaration of freedom, the bursting of bonds."

Means has also continued to be active on the Hollywood scene. His acclaimed role of Chingachgook in Last of the Mohicans was followed with his doing the voice of Chief Powhatan in Walt Disney's hit Pocahontas. He also has credits in Natural Born Killers, Wagons East, and Wind Runner. Means is also planning a school at Pine Ridge to be called the University of the Universe and will teach Lakota culture as does his Yellow Thunder Camp in the Black Hills. Means hopes that through these spiritual youth camps he will leave a legacy of "self-dignity and self-pride" amongst his people.

Further Reading

Means, Russell, Where White Men Fear to Tread: The Autobiography of Russell Means, St. Martin's Press, 1995. □

Means, Russell

views updated May 29 2018

Means, Russell 1939-


Russell Means, an Oglala Sioux, is one of the most lionized and controversial American Indians of the twentieth century. Means rose to national prominence as an American Indian Movement (AIM) spokesperson and negotiator during the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. The occupation lasted seventy-one days, ending with two occupiers dead and two federal officials seriously injured. Means faced several charges stemming from the Wounded Knee occupation, but they were eventually dismissed.

Means was not a founding member of AIM, an American Indian civil rights organization started in Minneapolis in 1968, but he did establish a local chapter in Cleveland and became the groups first national director in 1970. His other political activities include a 1970 lawsuit against the Cleveland Indians baseball team over the Chief Wahoo mascot; the 1972 takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) office in Washington D.C.; and protests against Columbus Day observances and parades in 1992.

His relationship with AIM became strained over the years, and he resigned in 1986. By 1993, AIM factions had officially split, with Means developing the International Confederation of Autonomous Chapters of the American Indian Movement; and fellow American Indian activists Vernon Bellecourt (b. 1931) and Clyde Bellecourt (b. 1939) heading up the American Indian MovementGrand Governing Council.

Means admitted to criminal activity in his 1995 autobiography, Where White Men Fear to Tread ; his legal troubles include several arrests and trials, a felony conviction for the 1974 Sioux Falls courthouse riot, and a 1975 murder charge. Although Means served one year in prison for the riot conviction, he was pardoned in 2002 by South Dakota governor Bill Janklow; he was acquitted on the murder charge.

In 1997 he was arrested on the Navajo reservation for assaulting his father-in-law. Scheduled to be tried in the Navajo Nation court system, Means argued that he was not subject to its jurisdiction. In 2005 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled the Navajo Nation does have misdemeanor criminal jurisdiction over non-member American Indians, including Means. Critics contend that Meanss effort to thwart Navajo jurisdiction was an attack on tribal sovereignty to further his own interests, whereas Means argues that he was attempting to uphold Navajo treaty rights with respect to jurisdiction over lawbreakers. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Means has also made several attempts to work within the political system. He made three unsuccessful bids for the presidency of the Oglala Sioux Nation in 1974, 1984, and 2002. In 1984, Means was Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynts running mate in the latters unsuccessful attempt to secure the Republican nomination for president of the United States. In 1988 Means lost his bid to be the Libertarian Partys presidential nominee. He entered the New Mexico gubernatorial race as an independent in 2002 but ultimately withdrew.

Means is also an actor, securing roles in The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Pocahontas (1995), and Thomas and the Magic Railroad (2000). Means prefers the term American Indian over Native American because he believes anyone born in the Western hemisphere is a Native American (Means 1998).

SEE ALSO American Indian Movement; Indigenous Rights; Native Americans; Tribe


Means, Russell. 1995. Where White Men Fear to Tread: The Autobiography of Russell Means. Written with Marvin J. Wolf. New York: St. Martins.

Means, Russell. 1998. I Am an American Indian, Not a Native American! Russell Means Web site, January 16, 1998.

Wilson, Raymond. 2001. Russell Means/Lakota. In The New Warriors: Native American Leaders since 1900, ed. R. David Edmunds, 147169. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Elizabeth Arbuckle Wabindato

Means, Russell 1939-

views updated May 23 2018

Means, Russell 1939-


Full name, Russell Charles Means; born November 10, 1939, in Pine Ridge, SD; son of Harold and Theodora (maiden name, Feather) Means; married three times (marriages ended); married fourth wife, Gloria Grant (a Navajo educator and former rodeo rider); children: ten, including Tatanka (an actor). Education: Attended University of California, Los Angeles, Arizona State University, and Cleveland State College. Politics: Independent.


Contact—Kirk Talent Agencies, Inc., 134 Abbott St., Suite 402, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada V6B 2K4.


Actor. Rosebud Sioux Reservation, South Dakota, member of tribal council, 1960s; American Indian Center, Cleveland, OH, director, 1969-72; TREATY Fund, chief executive officer, 1983—; American Indian Anti-Defamation League, affiliate 1988—; American Indian Movement, founder and first national director; Red Cloud Law Firm, senior law partner; Native American rights activist. KILI-FM Radio, Pine Ridge, SD, founder; lecturer on philosophy, politics, environment, economics, and spiritual subjects at universities in the United States and abroad, 1970—. Libertarian candidate for governor of New Mexico, 2002. Previously worked as rodeo hand, Indian dancer, ballroom dance instructor, computer operator, janitor, assistant golf professional, cowboy, day laborer, public accountant, and at an advertising firm.


Film Appearances:

Chingachgook, The Last of the Mohicans, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1992.

Himself, Incident at Oglala (documentary), 1992.

Warren Red Cloud, Natural Born Killers, Warner Bros., 1994.

Chief, Wagons East!, TriStar, 1994.

Voice of Chief Powhatan, Pocahontas (animated), Buena Vista, 1995.

Mudjekeewis, Song of Hiawatha, Hallmark Home Entertainment, 1997.

Voice of Powhatan, Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World (animated; also known as Disney's "Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World" and Pocahontas: Journey to a New World), Buena Vista Home Video, 1998.

Washakie, Wind River, 1998.

Billy Twofeathers, Thomas and the Magic Railroad, Destination Films, 2000.

Himself, Warrior Spirits, 2000.

Joe, Ring of Fire (also known as Cowboy Up), Destination Films, 2000.

Chief, 29 Palms, Artisan Entertainment, 2001.

Bud, Black Cloud, Old Post Films, 2004.

(Uncredited; in archive footage) The Assassination of Richard Nixon, ThinkFilm, 2004.

Himself, The Last Shot, Buena Vista, 2004.

Intervention, Alliance Atlantis Motion Picture Distribution, 2006.

The pathfinder, Pathfinder (also known as Pathfinder: The Legend of the Ghost Warrior and Le sang du guerrier), Twentieth Century-Fox, 2007.

Grandpa, Unearthed, After Dark Films, 2007.

Dodds, Rez Bomb, Roaring Fire Films, 2008.

Television Appearances; Movies:

Wa Tho Huck/Jim Thorpe, Windrunner (also known as Windrunner: A Spirited Journey), Disney Channel, 1994.

Arrowhead, The Pathfinder, Showtime, 1996.

Ten Reed, Black Cat Run, HBO, 1998.

Television Appearances; Miniseries:

Sitting Bull, Buffalo Girls, CBS, 1995.

Voice, The West, PBS, 1996.

Running Fox as an older man, Into the West, TNT, 2005.

Television Appearances; Specials:

Marlon Brando: Breaking All the Rules, Arts and Entertainment, 1996.

Intimate Portrait: Margot Kidder, Lifetime, 1999.

Images of Indians: How Hollywood Stereotyped the Native American, Starz, 2003.

Brando, TCM, 2007.

Television Appearances; Episodic:

"Russell Means," Lauren Hutton and …, 1995.

Edison, "Written in Dust," Touched by an Angel, CBS, 1996.

Luthor Iron Shirt, "Plague," Walker, Texas Ranger (also known as Walker), CBS, 1996.

Uncle Joe, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," Profiler, NBC, 1997.

Voice, "Role with It," Duckman (animated), USA Network, 1997.

Joseph Grayhawk, "And How!," Remember WENN, AMC, 1997.

"Downtime," Nash Bridges (also known as Bridges), CBS, 1998.

Dexter Birdsong, "Lady Killer," Nash Bridges (also known as Bridges), CBS, 1998.

Politically Incorrect (also known as Politically Incorrect), Comedy Central, 1999.

James Saginaw, "Americans," Family Law, CBS, 2001.

Title role, "Wandering Bear," Curb Your Enthusiasm, HBO, 2004.



Narrator, Wounded Heart: Pine Ridge and the Sioux, A Plus Entertainment, 2006.

Pathfinder: The Build, Trailer Park, 2007.

Voices of shaman and chief sentry, Turok: Son of Stone (animated), Genius Products, 2008.

Video Games:

Voice of The Chameleon, Under a Killing Moon, 1994.

Voice of Chief Powhatan, Pocahontas (also known as Disney's "Pocahontas"), 1997.


Recorded The Radical and Electric Warrior.



(With Marvin J. Wolf) Where White Men Fear to Tread: The Autobiography of Russell Means, St. Martin's Press, 1995.

Contributor to books, including Marxism and Native Americans, edited by Ward Churchill, South End Press, 1983.


Songwriter for the film Natural Born Killers, Warner Bros., 1994.



Means, Russell, and Marvin J. Wolf, Where White Men Fear to Tread: The Autobiography of Russell Means, St. Martin's Press, 1995.


Cowboys & Indians, October, 2002, pp. 138-143.

Entertainment Weekly, October 23, 1992, p. 34.

People Weekly, October 12, 1992, p. 63.


Russell Means Official Site,, February 14, 2008.

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