(Reuters) - American Indian activist Russell Means, whose lifelong campaign to assure the rights and dignity of his people grew to encompass Hollywood and indigenous populations worldwide, died on Monday at his South Dakota home, his family said. He was 72.
“Our dad and husband now walks among our ancestors,” the family said in a statement.
The firebrand former leader of the American Indian Movement and one-time Libertarian Party candidate for U.S. president had been battling esophageal cancer.
Born in South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of the Oglala Sioux, also known as the Oglala Lakota, Means participated in the 1964 American Indian occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, his first major act of civil disobedience.
He joined the American Indian Movement in 1968 and soon became one its prominent leaders.
He subsequently took part in an occupation of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington in 1972. But it was his leadership of an armed, 72-day standoff against federal authorities at Wounded Knee on Pine Ridge in 1973 that made him a national figure.
The siege at Wounded Knee, protesting what Means believed to be a corrupt tribal government and maltreatment of American Indians by federal authorities, left two demonstrators dead, a U.S. marshal paralyzed and numerous others injured.
Nearly 80 years earlier, Wounded Knee was the site of an 1890 massacre of scores of Lakota men, women and children by U.S. cavalry troops in what was the final major clash of the American Indian wars.
Beginning his activism in the early 1960s, at the height of the U.S. Civil Rights movement focused on ending racial segregation for blacks, Means first protested college and professional sports teams’ use of Indian images as mascots. He said they were demeaning caricatures of his people.
Means was arrested numerous times throughout his life and spent several periods in jail. He ultimately expanded his efforts on behalf of American Indians - he disliked the term “Native American” - to rally support for indigenous people in other countries.
Means split with the national chapter of the American Indian Movement, or AIM, in the mid-1980s over the group’s stance on the forced relocation of Miskito Indians at the hands of the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, among other issues.
Means said AIM’s left-leaning national leadership was hesitant to criticize Nicaragua’s Marxist regime.
He then formed the American Indian Movement of Colorado, and was arrested multiple times for blocking the Columbus Day parade in Denver.
He called Christopher Columbus a “trans-Atlantic slave trader” whose life and explorations should not be celebrated because they launched hundreds of years of mistreatment of indigenous people by European settlers in the New World.
“No one in AIM was loved or hated as passionately as Russell Means,” said Robert Allen Warrior, director of American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois.
Warrior, co-author of “Like a Hurricane: The American Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee,” called Means one of the most important Native Americans of the last 100 years.
He ran unsuccessfully for president of his tribe and sought the Libertarian nomination for U.S. president, losing to Representative Ron Paul at the party’s 1987 national convention.
“Given the mistreatment of American Indians by the U.S. government, I don’t know why any of us would be anything but libertarians who mistrust the federal government,” he told Reuters in an interview.
In a more baffling political turn, “Hustler” magazine publisher Larry Flynt tapped Means as his running mate in a long-shot 1984 bid for the Republican presidential nomination widely seen as an election-year stunt.
Means, who was married several times, was candid about his own foibles, including a struggle with alcohol. In 1997 he was arrested on suspicion of assault on his then-father-in-law.
“Despite his sometimes odd choices, personal failures and ethical lapses, he was central to giving voice to the radical vision of protest to American Indians of the late 20th century,” Warrior said.
Means dabbled in acting, appearing in such films as “The Last of the Mohicans” and “Natural Born Killers.” He was the voice of Pocahontas’ father in the popular 1995 Disney film.
More recently, he was the public face of Lakota tribal members who sued the U.S. government over child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests at Indian boarding schools in South Dakota.
The federal government had contracted with the Catholic Church and other religious organizations to run the schools.
“The boarding schools were part of a century of torture by the federal government and their cultural genocide against American Indians,” he said.
Means was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2011, and underwent a combination of traditional Native American and conventional modern medical therapies at an Arizona clinic. He died just weeks shy of his 73rd birthday.
Troy Lynn Yellow Wood, who knew Means for more than 40 years, said he put up “a valiant fight” against the cancer, but in the end decided to return home to die.
“This is a great loss to the Lakota people,” she said. “Russell gave us the courage to stand up and be heard about the terrible injustices that were done to us.”
Reporting by Keith Coffman; Editing by Steve Gorman and Xavier Briand