Russell Means, 72, Was Pocahontas Actor, Activist

24 Flares 24 Flares ×
Russell Means

Rus­sell Means

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.

Poc­a­hon­tas became Disney’s third highest-selling video ever. Means also voiced Powhatan in the 1998 direct-to-video Dis­ney release Poc­a­hon­tas II: Jour­ney to a New World.

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.

Related Posts:

About Ethan Minovitz

A longtime contributor top BCDB, Ethan has become our resident research expert. Turned loose inside a database, there is nothing Ethan cannot find. Resident of the Great Northwest, Ethan is fiercely proud of his native Canada. Ethan is a professional researcher in his real life in Vancouver, BC. Ethan would love to hear from you- send a note here.


One thought on “Russell Means, 72, Was Pocahontas Actor, Activist

  1. My prayers are with Mr. Means fam­ily. He is at peace now in a place where he can be what he is with­out the hatred & oppres­sion. It is not “Good-Bye”, but rather “See you later,” for his loved ones for he is wait­ing for you on the other side. May God com­fort you all! Peace!

Leave a Reply