Arguably one of the most well-known modern advocates of American Indian rights, Russell Means exhibits a spirited outspokenness that helped open a dialogue that changed the course of American Indian history in the late twentieth century. An Oglala Lakota, Means was born on November 10, 1939, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwestern South Dakota. Wishing to escape the limitations of reservation life, his mother, Theodora Louise Feather Means, moved the family to Vallejo, California, where his father, Walter "Hank" Means, found work as a welder at the navy shipyard on Mare Island. Hank's alcoholism contributed to an unstable family life for Russell and his teenage years were marked by school truancy, drug and alcohol abuse, and petty criminal activity.
In 1964, the twenty-six-year-old Means, recently fired from his job as a night watchman at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, accepted an invitation to accompany his father and a small assemblage of Indians living in the San Francisco Bay area on a symbolic takeover of the recently abandoned federal prison on Alcatraz Island. Russell later confided that his father's willingness to stand up for Indian treaty rights "made me proud to be his son, and to be a Lakota" (Means, 1995, 105).
Five years later, as a new cadre of urban Indians readied once again to occupy Alcatraz, Means was in Cleveland, Ohio, where he joined two Anishinabe Indians from Minnesota, Clyde Bellecourt and Dennis Banks, in their effort to develop the American Indian Movement (AIM)—arguably the principal agency for American Indian empowerment during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Means later acknowledged "here was a way to be a real Indian, and AIM had shown it to me. No longer would I be content to 'work within the system.' . . . Instead, like Clyde and Dennis and the others in AIM, I would get in the white man's face until he gave me and my people our just due. With that decision, my whole existence suddenly came into focus. For the first time, I knew the purpose of my life and the path I must follow to fulfill it. At the age of thirty I became a full-time Indian" (Means, 1995, 153).
On Thanksgiving Day 1970, Means, Banks, and other AIM leaders joined local Wampanoag activists in Plymouth, Massachusetts, to observe a national day of Indian mourning at the 350th anniversary celebration of the arrival of the Pilgrims. Speaking at the base of a larger-than-life statue of Chief Massasoit overlooking Plymouth Harbor, Means delivered an impassioned speech praising the ancestral Wampanoags who welcomed the Pilgrims and denouncing the white man's culture. Within twenty-four hours, Indian activists seized the Mayflower II (a full-scale replica of the original Mayflower), painted Plymouth Rock red, and brought national attention to the American Indian Movement.
Following its success at Plymouth, AIM elected Means the first national coordinator of the movement. He participated in the AIM-sponsored protest at Mount Rushmore in June 1971 and in the Trail of Broken Treaties, which led to the seizure of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in November 1972. On the evening of February 27, 1973, Means, along with Dennis Banks, organized the occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, the most renowned episode in the history of American Indian Movement. The takeover of the community, the proclamation of an Independent Oglala Nation, and the subsequent seventy-one-day siege by the federal government led to the national attention—albeit short-lived—that Means and AIM desired.
In 1974, Russell Means, beset with legal fees and court cases in the aftermath of the Wounded Knee occupation, nevertheless began his career in politics when he ran unsuccessfully for the Oglala Sioux tribal chair against the incumbent, Dick Wilson, in a contested election marked by voter fraud. In 1976, Means was tried for and acquitted of the murder of Martin Montileaux in the Longhorn Saloon in Scenic, South Dakota. Two years later he entered the South Dakota State Penitentiary, ultimately serving only twelve months of his four-year conviction for participating in a riot in a Sioux Falls courthouse in 1974. He joined Larry Flynt in 1983 in the pornographer's unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential ticket in 1984. Hoping to force the Republican party to aid him in his struggles against the religious right in exchange for his withdrawal from the race, Flynt waged an outrageous campaign punctuated with publicity stunts. Disenchanted with the publisher's sincerity in championing First Amendment rights, Means ultimately removed his name from the ticket.
A supporter of indigenous rights worldwide, Means traveled to Nicaragua in 1986 to aid the Miskito Indians in their struggle against the Sandinistas. The move cost him the support of some of his more liberal supporters in AIM and elsewhere who saw his actions as condoning the pro-Contra dealings of the Reagan administration. Likewise, his 1986 speaking tour, sponsored by Reverend Sun Myung Moon's controversial Unification Church, further isolated Means from the Left. While the so-called Moonies used his lectures on Nicaragua as a venue to distribute literature about their church, Means saw the association as a vehicle to inform the public about the plight of the Nicaraguan Indians.
In 1987, Means accepted an invitation to enter the primary race for the Libertarian party's presidential candidate in 1988. The party's principles appealed to Means and he mounted an extensive national campaign, only to lose in the end to former Republican Congressman Ron Paul at the Libertarian party convention in Seattle. With residences in both South Dakota and New Mexico, Means tried in 2001 to enter the gubernatorial race in New Mexico as a candidate from the Independent Coalition party, only to drop out after a controversy over the filing deadline. Choosing instead to run, once again, for the presidency of the Oglala Sioux tribe, Means won the primary in 2002, but lost in the general election to incumbent John Yellow Bird Steele.
In addition to his activism and political aspirations, Russell Means developed a parallel career in the arts. In 1992, Means starred as Chingachgook in Last of the Mohicans and provided the voice of Chief Powhatan in Disney's Pocahontas in 1995. He also has had roles in ten other films to date as well as numerous guest appearances on television dramas and talk shows. His autobiography, Where White Men Fear to Tread, was published in 1995. He also has produced two music CDs and several works of art.
Russell Means remains active in issues of Indian self-determination and injustice in North America and abroad. Most recently, he has focused his efforts on a campaign to abolish Columbus Day. No stranger to controversy, Means's exploits have reaped both supporters and critics. There is no doubt, however, that his unremitting presence on the national stage in the late twentieth century helped draw attention to issues of import to Indian peoples.
Alan C. Downs
Means, Russell, with Marvin J. Wolf. 1995. Where White Men Fear to Tread: The Autobiography of Russell Means. New York: St. Martin's Press.; Smith, Paul Chaat, and Robert Allen Warrior. 1996. Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee. New York: The New Press.