SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Russell Means never shunned attention. Whether leading American Indians in railing against broken federal treaties, appearing in a Hollywood blockbuster or advocating a sovereign Indian nation within U.S. borders, the activist who helped lead the 1973 uprising at Wounded Knee reveled in the spotlight.
But it was only on his terms. Openly critical of mainstream media, the onetime leader of the American Indian Movement often refused interviews and verbally blasted journalists who showed up to cover his public appearances. Instead, he chose to speak to his fan base through YouTube videos and blog posts on his personal website.
When he did speak out publicly, he remained steadfast in his defense of AIM. He found himself dogged for decades by questions about the group’s alleged involvement in the slaying of a tribe member and the several gunbattles with federal officers during the 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee, but he denied that the group ever promoted violence.
“You people who want to continue to put AIM in this certain pocket of illegality, I can’t stand you people,” Mr. Means said, lashing out an at audience member’s question during an April gathering commemorating the uprising’s 40th anniversary. “I wish I was a little bit healthier and a little bit younger, because I wouldn’t just talk.”
Mr. Means, who announced in August 2011 that he had developed inoperable throat cancer but told The Associated Press he was forgoing mainstream medical treatments in favor of traditional American Indian remedies, died early Monday at his ranch in Porcupine, S.D., Oglala Sioux Tribe spokeswoman Donna Salomon said. He was 72.
Born in Wanblee, S.D., on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Mr. Means grew up in the San Francisco area before becoming an early leader of AIM. He often was embroiled in controversy, partly because of AIM’s alleged involvement in the 1975 slaying of Annie Mae Aquash.
But Mr. Means also was known for his role in the movie “The Last of the Mohicans” and had run unsuccessfully for the Libertarian nomination for president in 1988.
AIM was founded in the late 1960s to protest the U.S. government’s treatment of American Indians and demand the government honor its treaties with Indian tribes. Mr. Means told the AP in 2011 that before AIM, there had been no advocate on a national or international scale for American Indians and that they were ashamed of their heritage.
“No one except Hollywood stars and very rich Texans wore Indian jewelry,” Mr. Means said. “And there was a plethora of dozens if not hundreds of athletic teams that in essence were insulting us, from grade schools to college. That’s all changed.”
Paul DeMain, publisher of Indian Country Today, said that there were plenty of Indian activists before AIM but that the group became the “radical media gorilla.”
“If someone needed help, you called on the American Indian Movement, and they showed up and caused all kind of ruckus and looked beautiful on a 20-minute clip on TV that night,” Mr. DeMain said.
Mr. Means and AIM co-founder Dennis Banks were charged in 1974 for their role in the Wounded Knee uprising, but after a trial that lasted several months, a judge threw the charges out on grounds of government misconduct.
Mr. Means said he felt his most important accomplishment was the founding of the Republic of Lakotah and the “re-establishment of our freedom to be responsible” as a sovereign nation inside the borders of the United States. His efforts to have his proposed country recognized by the international community continued at the United Nations, he said, even as it was ignored by tribal governments closer to home, including his own Oglala Sioux Tribe.
But others may remember him for his former organization’s connection to Aquash’s slaying. Her death remains synonymous with AIM and its often-violent clashes with federal agents in the 1970s.