MEANS, RUSSELL (Nov 10, 1938 - Oct 22, 2012) was an Oglala Sioux activist, writer, and actor, who founded the CLEVELAND AMERICAN INDIAN CENTER and was a central figure in the American Indian Movement. Means spent his early childhood near the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and was one of five children. Means spent his summers in Greenwood, South Dakota with his grandparents, where he cherished walks across the prairie with his grandfather. It was here that Means, hearing endless stories from his grandparents, developed a love for his history, family, and traditions.
His parents, who grew up feeling trapped by reservations, wanted something different for their family, and moved to Carquinez Heights in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1942. Due to troubles with work, the family moved briefly back to South Dakota, where Means first experienced racial tensions at his school in Huron. Moving back to the Bay Area, Means spent his teenage years at the predominantly white San Leandro High School. A talented student, Means enrolled in Oakland City College with hopes of becoming a history teacher. Means never graduating from college, becoming disenchanted with his experiences in school.
Means travelled between several reservations after school in search for work, and became involved in legal movements and activism working to support the Lakota community. This eventually brought him to Cleveland, Ohio, where he founded the government funded Cleveland American Indian Center in 1969. The center aimed to help Cleveland’s native American population adapt to urban life, and opened as a cultural and social service center in the basement of ST. JOHN'S EPISCOPAL CHURCH. Serving as executive director, Means came into contact with founders of the American Indian Movement (AIM), which he joined at age 30. From the beginning, the Cleveland initiative proved controversial, with Means accentuating internal partisan and tribal divisions. Failing to unify, Means was forced out in 1972. Despite the conflicts, the center provided crucial assistance to urban Native Americans, including measures for counseling, culture, and alcoholism treatment. The Cleveland American Indian Center closed in the late 1980s.
Means continued as a staunch activist and leader in the American Indian Movement, participating in and orchestrating numerous demonstrations. In 1971, Means was one of the leaders of a takeover and prayer vigil atop the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Later in 1973, Means played a large role in the occupation of the town of Wounded Knee in Pine Ridge Reservation, and fought against the US government in the ensuing armed standoff. Throughout his life, Means was tried and acquitted in 12 criminal trials.
Means retired from AIM in 1988 and began a prolific acting career. Acting in over 30 roles, his most notable films include the 1992 “The Last of the Mohicans” and 1994”Natural Born Killers”. Extending his activism into Hollywood, Means aimed to bring popular representation to the Indian community. While he played parts directed mostly by white men, Means strove to act only on his own terms. In 1995, he published and wrote an autobiography Where White Men Fear to Tread.
Means’s first four marriages ended in divorce, and he eventually settled with Pearl Daniels Means until his death. He spent his later years caring for children and grandchildren. Russell Means passed away on October 22, 2012 at the age of 72, and was cremated. His ashes were scattered among the Black Hills of South Dakota.