Russell Means trades traditional Indian protests for power of the movies

May 07, 1994|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Sun Staff Writer

The nation's top American Indian leaders gathered in Albuquerque, N.M., this week to discuss concerns ranging from religious freedoms to water rights.

But Russell Means, the co-founder of the American Indian Movement and a leader of the protest at Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1973, wasn't among them. The activist turned actor was at the Anne Arundel County fairgrounds in Crownsville to be the guest of honor at a festival to raise awareness of children's rights and the environment.

Mr. Means has abandoned the leadership of the American Indian Movement for Hollywood. He played Chingachgook in "Last of the Mohicans" and roles in several films that will be released this summer. He is making plans for a children's television series, is co-writing and producing a film on the Wounded Knee uprising, and is preparing to release his second album of "rap-ajo" music.

It was "Last of the Mohicans" that changed his life, he says. The entertainment industry offered "an immediate venue that is unmatched anywhere else" to reach "millions around the world," he explained.

He was living on the Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona when director Michael Mann asked him and his co-revolutionary, Dennis Banks, to try out for the part of Chingachgook. After several screen tests, Mr. Means won the role.

Accusations that he has sold out and gone Hollywood don't bother him.

"I've been called all kinds of names by the government and by other Indians," he says.

A powerfully built man, he wears a black shirt and black jeans tucked into red snakeskin cowboy boots. His long hair is tied in braids and a turquoise necklace hangs on his chest.

In an hour's conversation, emotions sweep over the man the Los Angeles Times called "the most famous American Indian since Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse."

At times, he seems quiet, almost shy. His gentle handshake is surprising for a man who has fought federal agents and survived eight attempts on his life.

But his dark eyes can flash with deep-seated anger.

He leans forward in his chair and ticks off the list of injustices American Indians have suffered.

He refuses to use the term Native American, calling it a government label that fails to distinguish Indians from Eskimos, indigenous Hawaiians and other native peoples.

He dismisses the Indian tribal leaders attending the Albuquerque conference as "Vichy Indians" and "hang-around-the-fort Indians."

But at times, he leans back in his chair and smiles easily, disarmingly.

Much has changed since he led the Indians in their 71-day resistance at Wounded Knee.

He is proud to see new interest in Indian heritage and more positive portrayals of Indians on the movie screen.

Yet American Indians remain the poorest people in the country, and their goal of sovereignty eludes them.

Born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1939, Mr. Means grew up in California.

He was a rodeo rider, Indian dancer, ballroom dance instructor and public accountant before he moved to Cleveland in the late 1960s and became director of the Cleveland Indian Center.

There he met Dennis Banks, co-founder of the American Indian Movement, and established the second AIM chapter.

On Thanksgiving Day 1970, Mr. Means and a handful of other Indians seized control of the Mayflower II in Plymouth, Mass.

Later, he staged a prayer vigil atop Mount Rushmore, helped direct the seizure of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington and filed suit against the Cleveland Indians demanding that the team drop its Chief Wahoo mascot.

But times have changed. The anger, if not abated, is more controlled.

In 1991, prompted by a failing marriage and the desire to be a better father to his 10 children, he underwent counseling to learn to control his anger.

"I learned that anger is a good emotion, but that it shouldn't run away," he says.

Over the years, his political views have changed.

"I've definitely changed from an advocate of armed resistance to an advocate of complete independence of the United States through self assertion and legal means," he says.

He believes Indians will achieve independence from the United States government within his lifetime. "Every Indian community is now reasserting their rights. That is a phenomenal achievement."

But as much as he hopes for a sovereign Indian nation, Mr. Means seems prepared to make peace with the white man.

With an interest in helping children of all races, he agreed to participate in Spiritfest '94, a celebration of children and the earth, in Crownsville.

Ironically, the decision to attend brings him face-to-face with a former enemy.

Spiritfest '94 is being sponsored by the Good Knight Campaign for Protection, founded by former police officer Edward Jagen.

Mr. Jagen was working undercover for the Washington police department when Mr. Means led the seizure of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in November 1972.

As an undercover officer, Mr. Jagen infiltrated the building and reported on the condition of those inside.

In 1984, Mr. Jagen left the department and established Good Knight Campaign to teach children how to protect themselves from abuse.

Mr. Means says he bears no ill will toward Mr. Jagen.

"I never hold grudges," he says with a smile. "It's just that I never forget."

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