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By Chuck Haga, Forum Communications, Published October 22 2012

Russell Means, leader of American Indian Movement, dies at age 72

GRAND FORKS – The timing was coincidental, but Russell Means would have appreciated it: On the day he died, workers began removing the prominent “Home of the Fighting Sioux” signs from Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks.

A leader of the American Indian Movement who helped stage the occupation of Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1973, Means died Monday at his ranch in Porcupine, S.D., on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was 72.

A striking and charismatic figure who favored buckskin and leather-tied braids that reached to mid-thigh, he appeared in 10 movies, including as the title character in “Last of the Mohicans.” But he first gained notoriety through protest, and in 2001, he led a rally at the REA construction site against the use of Indian names and symbols by sports teams.

“It’s no longer acceptable for the Washington Redskins, it’s no longer acceptable for the Cleveland Indians, and it’s no longer acceptable for the Fighting Sioux” to use nicknames, logos and mascots derived from American Indian names and imagery, Means said.

He also spoke against the nickname on ESPN in 2009.

Born on the reservation but raised in the San Francisco Bay area, Means survived an alcoholic father and an abusive mother. He blamed their failings on Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools.

As a young man, he dealt drugs, got into brutal fights and abused women. But in 1969, he joined other Indians in a 19-month occupation of Alcatraz Island near San Francisco. In the early 1970s, he helped seize a Mayflower replica ship at Plymouth, Mass., on Thanksgiving Day, led a vigil at Mount Rushmore to press Indian claims to the Black Hills and led an occupation of the BIA building in Washington, D.C.

At Wounded Knee, site of an 1890 massacre of nearly 350 Lakota men, women and children, the 1973 standoff with federal agents lasted 10 weeks, drew heavy national media coverage and left two Indians dead and a federal agent paralyzed.

“Wounded Knee restored our dignity and pride as a people,” Means said in a 2002 interview at Pine Ridge. “It sparked a cultural renaissance, a spiritual revolution that grounded us.”

He faced assault, conspiracy and other charges after Wounded Knee, but a judge dismissed the case due to prosecutor misconduct. He would have more legal troubles and served a year in prison after a 1974 riot in Rapid City, S.D.

Means made quixotic runs for president of the United States and for governor of New Mexico, and, in 1985, tried to recruit American Indians to help Nicaragua’s Miskito Indians resist the Sandinista government.

His turn in “Last of the Mohicans” in 1992 led to more than two dozen other roles in film and on television, leading some Indians to discount his commitment and accuse him of exploiting the movement for personal fame and gain.

Means went home to Pine Ridge in 2002 to run for tribal president, and many young Indians especially saw him as a heroic figure, a proud warrior. But others wondered how much attention he was likely to give to such mundane problems as mold in shoddy reservation housing and the quality of food at homes for elders. He finished first among many candidates in a primary but lost the two-candidate runoff.

After doctors found esophageal cancer last year, Means announced he would deal with it through indigenous medicines and spiritual healing ceremonies.

But as it became clear that his condition was worsening, Oglala Sioux President John Yellow Bird Steele – the man who defeated Means in 2002 – declared June 26 this year to be “Russell Means Day” to honor his “accomplishments, dedication and patriotism” to the tribe.


Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald