| 11.3°C Dublin

Russell Means

Activist who led native Americans at Wounded Knee stand-off and later starred alongside Daniel Day-Lewis

RUSSELL MEANS, who has died aged 72, was a leading American Indian activist in the Seventies and later became an actor, appearing as the chief Chingachgook alongside Daniel Day-Lewis's Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans (1992).

By birth a Sioux, Means looked every inch the warrior: tall, good-looking, his long black hair often arranged in braids. His most famous intervention on behalf of his people came in February 1973, when he and some 200 followers -- many of them armed -- took over the small town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, scene of the infamous massacre on December 29, 1890, when a US cavalry unit killed Chief Big Foot and 350 members of his tribe, many of them women and children.

Claiming that the occupation was in retaliation for the government's breach of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which had granted the Black Hills to the Sioux, Means declared that he was establishing a traditional tribal government. The FBI surrounded the town, and Means prepared for a heroic endgame, telling the press: "I hope by my death, and the deaths of all these Indian men and women, there will be an investigation into corruption on the reservations." As the stand-off continued, civil rights groups airlifted supplies into the besieged town.

On April 4 Means finally agreed to surrender, on condition that he was taken to the White House to negotiate an agreement. When he arrived in Washington, however, the government refused to talk until the other activists in Wounded Knee had laid down their arms. On May 8 the remaining 120 protesters threw in the towel, the government having agreed to meet Sioux leaders and investigate alleged corruption in the tribal government. The occupation had lasted 71 days, during which occasional shots had been fired; two tribal members killed and a federal agent seriously wounded.

Means was prosecuted for his role in the affair in 1974, attending court wearing Indian costume and telling the jury: "We have had no way to express our manhood on the reservation except for. . . athletics, joining the service, grabbing the bottle, beating our women, or cutting our hair, putting on a tie and becoming a facsimile of white people." After a seven-month hearing the charges were dismissed. A year later, Means was acquitted of involvement in the murder of a Sioux man in a South Dakota saloon, but he did serve a year in jail for taking part in a riot in 1974.

Not all American Indians were persuaded, the more conservative accusing Means of being a "communist tool". Means dismissed the charge, declaring in 1971: "We want our own sovereign rights. Because the white man is such a violent dude, and because he digs violence so much, we have found that the only way the white man will listen is by us creating a disturbance in his world."

Russell Charles Means was born on the Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, on November 10, 1939. His father, Hank, was a half-white, half-Oglala Sioux who worked as a car mechanic; his mother, Feather, was a Yankton Sioux. Educated at San Leandro High School at Vallejo, California (his father had moved to the West Coast to find work), Russell was the constant target of taunts from his fellow pupils, almost all of whom were white. He began experimenting with drugs, and, after moving to Los Angeles, became an alcoholic. In between making several (ineffectual) attempts to gain a university degree, he worked as a ballroom dancing teacher, labourer and cowboy. By the late Sixties Means had become involved with the American Indian Movement (AIM), founded in Minneapolis in 1968 to address issues such as poverty, poor housing and police harassment.

On Thanksgiving Day 1970, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Means and a group of fellow American Indians took over Mayflower II (a replica of the ship which had brought the pilgrims to the New World in 1620). He went on to lead a prayer vigil on the summit of Mount Rushmore and to sue the Cleveland Indians baseball team for $9m, claiming that their mascot, a cartoon character called Chief Wahoo, was demeaning to his people.

In the autumn of 1972 the AIM organised a protest in Washington, DC, known as the "Trail of Broken Treaties", which gained huge publicity when it seized the Bureau of Indian Affairs' national headquarters, renaming it the "Native American Embassy". Talks with the authorities got nowhere, and Means and his followers prepared for an assault by riot police, vowing to die if necessary. On November 6, after a judge had ordered their eviction, the Indians destroyed furniture, files and office equipment; when the White House agreed to investigate their grievances, they left the building.

By 1988, when he harboured hopes of running for the presidency on the Libertarian Party ticket, Means had severed his ties with the AIM. Having taken a prominent role in The Last of the Mohicans, he concentrated on his acting career, appearing in films such as Natural Born Killers (1994) and Pathfinder (2007); he was also the voice of Chief Powhatan in Disney's animated film Pocahontas (1995). He was the author of an autobiography, Where White Men Fear to Tread.

After being diagnosed with inoperable throat cancer in 2011, Means declined conventional medical treatment, preferring to rely on traditional American Indian remedies.

Four times divorced, Russell Means had nine children. His fifth wife, Pearl, survives him.

© Telegraph

Sunday Independent