Published on September 12, 2012 by Carol
Russell Charles Means (November 10, 1939 – October 22, 2012) was an Oglala Sioux activist for the rights of Native American people. He became a prominent member of the American Indian Movement (AIM) after joining the organization in 1968, and helped organize notable events that attracted national and international media coverage. The organization split in 1993, in part over the 1975 murder of Anna Mae Aquash, the leading woman activist in AIM.
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Means was active in international issues of indigenous peoples, including working with groups in Central and South America, and with the United Nations for recognition of their rights. He was active in politics at his native Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and at the state and national level.
Since 1992, he has acted in numerous films and released his own music CD. He published his autobiography Where White Men Fear to Tread in 1997.
Means was born in Wanblee, South Dakota, a community located in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, to Theodora Feather and Harold “Hank” Means. He was baptized Oyate Wacinyapin, which means “works for the people” in the Lakota language. His Oglala Sioux parents met as students at an Indian boarding school.
In 1942, when Russell was three, the Means family resettled in the San Francisco Bay Area, seeking to escape the poverty and problems of the reservation. His father worked at the shipyard. Means grew up in the Bay area, graduating in 1958 from San Leandro High School in San Leandro, California. In his 1995 autobiography, Means recounted a harsh childhood; his father was alcoholic and he himself fell into years of “truancy, crime and drugs” before finding purpose in the American Indian Movement in Minneapolis.
His father died in 1967, and in his 20′s, Means lived in several Indian reservations throughout the United States while searching for work. While at the Rosebud Indian Reservation in south-central South Dakota, he developed severe vertigo. Physicians at the reservation clinic believed that he had been brought in inebriated. After they refused to examine him for several days, Means was finally diagnosed with a concussion due to a presumed fist fight in a saloon. A visiting specialist later discovered that the reservation doctors had overlooked a common ear infection, which cost Means the hearing in one ear.
After recovering from the infection, Means worked for a year in the Office of Economic Opportunity, where he came to know several legal activists who were managing legal action on behalf of the Lakota people. After a dispute with his supervisor, Means left Rosebud for Cleveland, Ohio. In Cleveland, he worked with Native American community leaders against the backdrop of the American Civil Rights Movement.