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Russell Means, an Oglala Sioux, is one of the most lionized and controversial American Indians of the twentieth century. Means rose to national prominence as an American Indian Movement (AIM) spokesperson and negotiator during the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. The occupation lasted seventy-one days, ending with two occupiers dead and two federal officials seriously injured. Means faced several charges stemming from the Wounded Knee occupation, but they were eventually dismissed.
Means was not a founding member of AIM, an American Indian civil rights organization started in Minneapolis in 1968, but he did establish a local chapter in Cleveland and became the group’s first national director in 1970. His other political activities include a 1970 lawsuit against the Cleveland Indians baseball team over the Chief Wahoo mascot; the 1972 takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) office in Washington D.C.; and protests against Columbus Day observances and parades in 1992.
His relationship with AIM became strained over the years, and he resigned in 1986. By 1993, AIM factions had officially split, with Means developing the International Confederation of Autonomous Chapters of the American Indian Movement; and fellow American Indian activists Vernon Bellecourt (b. 1931) and Clyde Bellecourt (b. 1939) heading up the American Indian Movement–Grand Governing Council.
Means admitted to criminal activity in his 1995 autobiography, Where White Men Fear to Tread; his legal troubles include several arrests and trials, a felony conviction for the 1974 Sioux Falls courthouse riot, and a 1975 murder charge. Although Means served one year in prison for the riot conviction, he was pardoned in 2002 by South Dakota governor Bill Janklow; he was acquitted on the murder charge.
In 1997 he was arrested on the Navajo reservation for assaulting his father-in-law. Scheduled to be tried in the Navajo Nation court system, Means argued that he was not subject to its jurisdiction. In 2005 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled the Navajo Nation does have misdemeanor criminal jurisdiction over non-member American Indians, including Means. Critics contend that Means’s effort to thwart Navajo jurisdiction was an attack on tribal sovereignty to further his own interests, whereas Means argues that he was attempting to uphold Navajo treaty rights with respect to jurisdiction over lawbreakers. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Means has also made several attempts to work within the political system. He made three unsuccessful bids for the presidency of the Oglala Sioux Nation in 1974, 1984, and 2002. In 1984, Means was Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt’s running mate in the latter’s unsuccessful attempt to secure the Republican nomination for president of the United States. In 1988 Means lost his bid to be the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee. He entered the New Mexico gubernatorial race as an independent in 2002 but ultimately withdrew.
Means is also an actor, securing roles in The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Pocahontas (1995), and Thomas and the Magic Railroad (2000). Means prefers the term American Indian over Native American because he believes “anyone born in the Western hemisphere is a Native American” (Means 1998).
- Means, R 1995. Where White Men Fear to Tread: The Autobiography of Russell Means. Written with Marvin J. Wolf. New York: St. Martin’s.
- Wilson, 2001. Russell Means/Lakota. In The New Warriors: Native American Leaders since 1900, ed. R. David Edmunds, 147–169. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
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