FARMINGTON — Fierce American Indian activist Russell Means died Monday after a more than year-long fight with cancer, his least public battle since stepping into the limelight in the early 1970s.

Means, 72, died at his ranch in Porcupine, S.D., on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Means took on the cause of civil rights for American Indians nationwide, ruffling the feathers of both political aristocrats and fellow American Indians, some of whom still remember his brushes with the Four Corners region.

"He was much more effective on the television than he was in helping the lives of his people," said Malcolm Brenner, a former Daily Times reporter who spoke with Means while working at the Gallup Independent in the 1990s, a decade before Means unsuccessfully ran for New Mexico governor.

Means, an Oglala Sioux, primarily was known for his involvement in the American Indian Movement, an organized effort by American Indians across the country to bring attention to the issues that plagued them.

While known for leading uprisings on the Mayflower II replica ship on Thanksgiving in 1970, and for the 1972 prayer vigil atop Mount Rushmore, Means is most remembered for the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee, S.D.

Memorialized for the bloody battle between Lakota tribe members and American troops in 1890, Wounded Knee again went down in history when Means and more than 300 members of the Lakota tribe, and a dozen AIM veterans, spent 71 days occupying the historical site.


"Through three blizzards and more than five million rounds of ammunition expended by the Feds, we experienced a freedom we had not known for a century," Means wrote on his web site. Two American Indians died and one federal agent was paralyzed during the shootout.

Means enjoyed starring roles as much as he did those in leadership, taking American Indian stereotype roles throughout his life.

His most notable roles in Hollywood included his 1992 role in "The Last of the Mohicans," as well as his portrayal of a medicine man in Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers," part of which was filmed in Shiprock, including the opening scene.

"Russell portrayed a Navajo medicine man without regard for Navajo tradition," said Brenner, who recalls many Navajo being upset by Means' use of snakes in the "Natural Born Killers" scene.

Means' sensationalistic approaches, however, gained Means and his movement much support and attention, if not from fellow American Indians, from intellects who wanted a cause to join, according to Brenner and several newspapers who wrote about his death.

The New York Times wrote that Means struggled with alcohol and drugs, and also was the father of nine children and husband to five women. His family is spread across the nation.

Tatanka Means, one of his sons, is an actor and comedian from Chinle, Ariz., who frequents the Four Corners while on tour with Navajo comedians from the 49 Laughs tour.

Pax Harvey, a local Navajo comedian, wrote on Tatanka's Facebook page Monday, "My heart aches and my spirit cries with my brothers Tatanka & Nataanii Means. Today our father Journey's home to the spirit world. His legacy will continue to live in our lives..."

While Russell Means frequented his own stomping grounds in South Dakota more often than those in the Southwest, he visited the area to see family at times, and, at others, to make a film or make a statement.