Russell Charles Means (November 10, 1939 – October 22, 2012) was an Oglala Lakota activist for the rights of American Indian people, libertarianpolitical activist, actor, writer and musician, who became a prominent member of the American Indian Movement (AIM) after joining the organization in 1968 and helped organize notable events that attracted national and international media coverage.
Means was active in international issues of indigenous peoples, including working with groups in Central and South America and with the United Nations for recognition of their rights. He was active in politics at his native Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and at the state and national level.
Beginning an acting career in 1992, he appeared on numerous television series and in several films, including The Last of the Mohicans and released his own music CD. He published his autobiography Where White Men Fear to Tread in 1995. Means died in 2012, less than a month before his 73rd birthday. Means was born in Porcupine, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, to Theodora Louise Feather and Walter “Hank” Means. His mother was a Yankton Dakota from Greenwood, South Dakota and his father, an Oglala Lakota. As well as Russell, the family had two other boys (William “Bill” and Warren) and three girls (Madonna, Mabel Ann and Phyllis). He was given the name Wanbli Ohitika by his mother, which means “Brave Eagle” in the Lakota language.
Means participated in the 1969 Alcatraz occupation. He had been there once before, to occupy it for 24 hours under the lead of his father, Walter “Hank” Means, and a few other Lakota men in March 1964 (Means’ father died in January 1967).
On Thanksgiving Day 1970, Means and other AIM activists staged their first protest in Boston: they seized the Mayflower II, a replica ship of the Mayflower, to protest the Puritans’ and United States’ mistreatment of Native Americans. In 1971 Means was one of the leaders of AIM’s takeover of Mount Rushmore, a federal monument. Rushmore is within the Black Hills, an area sacred to the Lakota tribe.
In November 1972, he participated in AIM’s occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) headquarters in Washington, D.C. to protest abuses. Many records were taken or destroyed, and more than $2 million in damages was done to the building.
In 1973, Dennis Banks and Carter Camp led AIM’s occupation of Wounded Knee, which became the group’s most well-known action. Means appeared as a spokesman and prominent leader. The armed standoff of more than 300 Lakota and AIM activists with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and state law enforcement lasted for 71 days. A visiting Cherokee from North Carolina and an Oglala Lakota activist from Pine Ridge Reservation were killed in April.