American Indian activist and would-be Libertarian presidential candidate Russell Means has succumbed at age 72 to a yearlong battle with esophageal cancer. Means was a longtime, media-savvy advocate for Native American causes.
He first attracted the national news in 1970, when he organized a Thanksgiving Day seizure of the Mayflower II replica ship in Plymouth, Massachusetts, by a band of Indian protesters.
An Oglala Sioux, Means joined the American Indian Movement (AIM) in 1968. He brought a keen sense of symbolic action to the group and was instrumental in leading a Native American prayer vigil atop the presidential heads at Mount Rushmore, South Dakota, to lament Lakota losses in the Black Hills. Means was one of the first vocal opponents of the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo mascot (a mascot that reigns to this day).
A series of cross-country protests led by Means culminated in Native American activists occupying the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1972.
In 1973, a 71-day standoff between American Indian Movement protesters encamped at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, and federal agents ended in heavy gunfire, with two Indians killed and one federal agent paralyzed. Means and fellow protester Dennis Banks were tried on charges of assault, larceny and conspiracy. The case was eventually dismissed on grounds of prosecutorial misconduct.
Means captured 31 percent of the vote for the presidential nomination at the 1987 Libertarian National Convention, coming in second to Congressman Ron Paul.
Means appeared as a television and film actor in productions including The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Natural Born Killers (1994) and Curb Your Enthusiasm (2004).
His 1995 autobiography, Where White Men Fear to Tread, detailed his early problems with truancy and an alcoholic father and his discovery of the American Indian Movement.
In later life, Russell Means contended that, “The United States is one big reservation, and we are all in it.”
“The only way you can be free is to know that you are worthwhile as a distinct human being,” said Means. “Otherwise you become what the colonizers have designed, and that is a lemming. Get in line, punch all the right keys, and die.”
In the October 7, 2000, photo above, Means is being arrested by Denver Police for blocking the path of the March for Italian Pride Columbus Day Parade.
Photo: Mark Leffingwell/Getty Images