Native American activist and actor Russell Means, the voice of Chief Powhatan — the title character’s father — in the 1995 Disney film Pocahontas, died early Monday at his ranch in Porcupine on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, his family said in a statement. He was 72.
The former leader of the American Indian Movement was diagnosed with inoperable esophageal cancer in August 2011. He received a combination of traditional Native American and conventional modern medical therapies at an Arizona clinic. Eventually, the cancer spread to his tongue, lymph nodes and lungs, friends said.
“Our dad and husband now walks among our ancestors,” the family statement said.
He voiced both the Chief Sentry and the Shaman in the 2008 direct-to-DVD movie Turok: Son of Stone. Means was a guest actor in the 1997 Duckman episode “Role With It,” in which Duckman takes his family on an educational trip to a “genuine Indian reservation” — which turns out to be a casino.
Means narrated Trevor Jones’ 2010 animated theatrical short The Sasquatch and the Girl.
He was described by the Los Angeles Times as the most famous American Indian since Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.
A former Libertarian Party candidate for United States president, he lost the nomination to Congressman Ron Paul at the party’s 1987 national convention.
Russell Charles Means was born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of South Dakota’s Oglala Sioux on November 10, 1939. He was the eldest son of Hank Means, an Oglala Sioux, and Theodora (Feather) Means, a full-blooded Yankton Sioux.
Shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War, his family moved to California, where he graduated from San Leandro High in 1958 and continued his formal education at Oakland City College and Arizona State. Russell’s commitment to uplift the plight of his people escalated when he served as director of Cleveland’s American Indian Center. It was there that he met Dennis Banks, co-founder of the American Indian Movement, and embarked upon a relationship that would rocket them both into national prominence.
He had been an activist for Native American rights since the 1960s, when he began protesting college and professional sports teams’ use of Indian images as mascots. Means described these as demeaning caricatures of his people.
In 1968, he joined the AIM, soon rising to be one of the group’s best-known leaders. In 1972, he took part in an occupation of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C. The following year, he led the 72-day standoff with federal authorities at Wounded Knee on Pine Ridge.
Arrested many times during his years of protest, and was jailed on several occasions.
Means joined “The Longest Walk” in 1978 to protest a new tide of anti-Indian legislation including the forced sterilization of Indian women. Following the walk, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution saying that national policy was to protect the rights of Indians, “to believe, express and exercise their traditional religions, including but not limited to access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.”
In the early 2000s, he ran several times for president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, but was defeated each time. Means became an actor starting as Daniel Day-Lewis’ adopted father, Chief Chingachgook, in the 1992 blockbuster Last of the Mohicans. He appeared in over 30 films and TV shows productions, including Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994) and Pathfinder (2007). In other major feature films, he had lead roles as a chief in John Candy’s comedy Wagons East and as the ghost of Jim Thorpe in Wind Runner.
He also worked in a television documentary for HBO, Paha Sapa; and Indian Father and Son, a pilot he created. He wrote two albums of protest music, Electric Warrior and The Radical. On the technological side, he starred in a CD-ROM, Under A Killing Moon.
He split his time between San Jose, New Mexico; his ranch on the Pine Ridge Sioux Indian reservation; and his office in Santa Monica, California. He took pride in having instituted programs for the betterment of his people: notably, the Porcupine Health Clinic (the only non-government funded clinic in Indian Country) and KILI radio, the first Indian-owned radio station.
One of his principal goals was the establishment of a “Total Immersion School,” based on a concept created by the Maori people of New Zealand, where children are immersed in the language, culture, science, music and storytelling of their own people.
Russell Means was predeceased by his brother Ted. He was married five times — the last to his widow, Pearl. He had 10 children.
The family has not yet finalized funeral plans. However, fellow AIM founder Dennis Banks said he understands that Means will be cremated, and that his life will be celebrated over four days of ceremonies that probably will begin Thursday.