Biography

Once described as "the most famous American Indian since Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse," Oglala/Lakota Sioux Russell Means made a name for himself as an activist two decades before he became an actor. Born in Pine Ridge, SD, near the storied Black Hills, Means joined the late '60s cultural foment as an avid advocate for American Indian rights and recognition. As the first national director of the American Indian Movement (he disdained the term "Native American") and a participant in the 1972 standoff with the government at Wounded Knee, Means became a prominent voice calling for self-determination and the preservation of American Indian heritage. Furthering his activist reach during the 1980s, Means traveled abroad to support freedom for other indigenous peoples worldwide, and ran for president as the Libertarian Party candidate in 1988. Seeing the potential in synergy, Means became a multimedia presence in the 1990s. Along with recording two albums and authoring his autobiography Where White Men Fear to Tread, Means also went into acting. Making his movie debut in Michael Mann's florid adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Means starred as the titular Chingachgook, father figure to Daniel Day-Lewis' Hawkeye. Taking his cue from such prior Native American actors as Chief Dan George and Will Sampson, Means portrayed Indians in a range of films and with humor as well as dignity. Following the ultra-serious Last of the Mohicans, Means appeared in the Western spoof Wagons East! (1994), and played the spiritually portentous Old Indian in Oliver Stone's bloody media satire Natural Born Killers (1994). Along with voicing Chief Powhatan in Disney's animated features Pocahontas (1995) and Pocahontas: Journey to a New World (1998), Means put his stamp on other well-known American Indian tales, reprising his role as Chingachgook in an adaptation of Cooper's The Pathfinder (1996), and appearing in the movie version of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem The Song of Hiawatha (1997). Responding to charges that his Hollywood career was a sell-out, Means noted that he poured his earnings back into such activist projects as American Indian education and continued to act. Means finished the decade with several films, including the crime drama Black Cat Run (1998) and the children's fantasy Thomas and the Magic Railroad (2000). He died of throat cancer in 2012, a few weeks before his 73rd birthday. ~ Lucia Bozzola, Rovi