MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The activist and actor Russell Means died today on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was 72 years old and had esophageal cancer. Means was widely known for his movie and TV roles but long before he took up acting, he played a seminal role in the American Indian rights movement.
South Dakota's Public Broadcasting's Charles Michael Ray has this remembrance.
CHARLES MICHAEL RAY, BYLINE: If you don't know who Russell Means is, this scene from a 1992 Hollywood film might jog your memory. In it, Means plays a key role alongside actor Daniel Day Lewis.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LAST OF THE MOHICANS")
RAY: But Means was not Mohican. He was an Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota. Means was born in 1939 and raised in the extreme poverty of reservation life. By the late 1960s, frustration over oppression of Native Americans sparked the American Indian Movement. Means was quick to join and in 1973, he helped spearhead the armed occupation of the town of Wounded Knee. That 71-day standoff included numerous gun battles between American Indians and federal agents, leaving two people dead.
As a central figure, Means took part in the negotiations with South Dakota's U.S. senators. Here's an excerpt from the WGBH documentary series "We Shall Remain."
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY "WE SHALL REMAIN")
RAY: For the American Indian Movement, that bet arguably paid off. Means called the occupation of Wounded Knee a watershed event in the struggle for indigenous rights.
: It sparked the Indian revolution in the entire hemisphere. Without Wounded Knee, 1973, there would be no Rigoberta Menchu, who won a Nobel Peace Prize and there'd be no Evo Morales, president of Bolivia.
RAY: Many historians agree. Robert Warrior is the director of American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois. Warrior says Means was a complex and controversial figure who successfully used his mainstream celebrity and tribal identity to advance the cause.
ROBERT WARRIOR: You know, Russell could take up the mantel of people like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull and others. And he managed to pull that off in a really impressive way across a long arc of time.
RAY: Warrior says Means also had his critics. He was accused of failing to pay child support for a number of children he fathered with five wives. And he played a role in the leadership disputes within the American Indian Movement that erupted after the uprising and violence of the early 1970s.
But fellow AIM member, Milo Yellowhair, who fought alongside Means at Wounded Knee, says in spite of what some critics say Means remains a hero to many of his own people.
MILO YELLOWHAIR: He did stand up and he did go to jail. He did get stabbed. He did get beat up. You know, all of the things in the name of our own sovereignty and our own justice system.
RAY: Means remained highly critical of the federal government. He called America's reservation system a type of concentration camp and in 2007, announced a new nation, the Republic of Lakota.
Russell Means never strayed far from the fiery activism of his youth, even while landing significant roles in mainstream films like "Pocahontas." In 2002, when asked if Native American people were still stereotyped in Hollywood, he gave this answer.
: Hollywood hasn't changed. It is the most racist, anti-Indian institution in the world.
RAY: Russell Means may be remembered for the fictional role he played as the Last Mohican. But it can also be said that he spent much of his real life fighting to make certain his own people won't face that fate.
For NPR News, I'm Charles Michael Ray in Rapid City, South Dakota. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.