Remembering Activist And Actor Russell Means

Russell Means was once called the "biggest, baddest, meanest, angriest, most famous American Indian activist of the late 20th century." He led a 71-day armed standoff against federal agents at Wounded Knee in 1973. Later, he used film as a vehicle for his advocacy. Host Michel Martin offers a remembrance.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And, finally today, we want to take a few moments to remember Native American activist and actor Russell Means. He died on Monday at his home in South Dakota. He had cancer. The Washington Post once called Means the quote, "biggest, baddest, meanest, angriest, most famous American Indian activist of the late 20th century," unquote. And that was an article describing a very different side of him. It was a review of his work in the animated Disney film "Pocahontas," where he was the voice of a Native American chief.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "POCAHONTAS")

RUSSELL MEANS: (as Powhatan) My daughter speaks with a wisdom beyond her years. We have all come here with anger in our hearts but she comes with courage and understanding. From this day forward there is to be more killing. But it will not start with me.

MARTIN: The Post said of his role: The voice is deep and reassuring, full of reason, temperance and wisdom, all qualities few ever expected from Russell Means. That's because decades before Means' performance he clashed with the American government over its treatment of Native Americans and its supervision of reservations. His activism included the 1973 armed takeover of Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Here's a clip of Means speaking about the standoff which eventually lasted for 71 days.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

MEANS: And sometimes there has to be violence to force the white man to listen. You leaders, you chiefs, have to be right there with us when we do it. But we seized Wounded Knee. Either we force the federal government to kill us all once again like they did 83 years ago at Wounded Knee, or else they come out and they negotiate and meet our demands.

MARTIN: Means was tried in 1974 for his actions at Wounded Knee but the case was dismissed. He continued his activism and political work, running for the Libertarian president nomination in 1987 and campaigning for the New Mexico governor's office in 2002 as an independent. Both campaigns were unsuccessful, but Means continued his political work throughout his life, with a particular focus on the poverty that still burdened many Native Americans. Here's a clip from an interview with Means released as part of a DVD in 2010.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

MEANS: My people have been digging through trash now for food and whatever. You know? When I see that, I know who my ancestors are and we're reduced to that? I don't go into the trash anymore.

MARTIN: On Monday, a message from the Means family on his website read in part, quote, "thank you for your prayers and continued support. We love you. As our dad and husband would only say, may the great mystery continue to guide and protect the paths of you and your loved ones," unquote.

Russell Means died on Monday at the age of 72.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEME SONG FROM MOVIE, "THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS")

MARTIN: In honor of Russell Means, we will end today with a selection from another film in which he appeared, "The Last of the Mohicans."

(SOUNDBITE OF THEME SONG FROM MOVIE, "THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS")

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEME SONG FROM MOVIE, "THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS")

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