Russell Means

Russell Means was an early leader of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and led its armed occupation of the South Dakota town of Wounded Knee, a 71-day siege that included several gunbattles with federal officers. (Jim Mone / AP)

Russell Means, who gained international notoriety as one of the leaders of the 71-day armed occupation of Wounded Knee in South Dakota in 1973 and continued to be an outspoken champion of American Indian rights after launching a career as an actor in films and television in the 1990s, has died. He was 72.

Means died Monday at his home in Porcupine, S.D., on the Pine Ridge Reservation, said Glenn Morris, his legal representative.

Diagnosed with esophageal cancer in July 2011 and told that it had spread too far for surgery, Means refused to undergo heavy doses of radiation and chemotherapy. Instead, he reportedly battled the disease with traditional native remedies and received treatments at an alternative cancer center in Scottsdale, Ariz.

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"I'm not going to argue with the Great Mystery," he told the Rapid City Journal in August 2011. "Lakota belief is that death is a change of worlds. And I believe like my dad believed. When it's my time to go, it's my time to go."

Means had been declared cancer-free in April but suffered a recurrence of the disease in his lungs and died after contracting pneumonia, Morris said.

The nation's most visible American Indian activist, Means was a passionate militant leader who helped thrust the historic and ongoing plight of Native Americans into the national spotlight.

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In joining the fledgling American Indian Movement in 1969, Means later wrote, he had found a new purpose in life and vowed to "get in the white man's face until he gave me and my people our just due."

An Oglala Sioux born on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Means in his activist prime was called strident, defiant, volatile, arrogant and aggressive. He was frequently arrested and claimed to have been the target of numerous assassination attempts.

A onetime con artist, dance-school instructor and computer programmer, Means was executive director of the government-funded Cleveland American Indian Center when he met Dennis Banks and other AIM founders in 1969.

In joining the American Indian Movement at age 30, Means later wrote in his autobiography, he had found "a way to be a real Indian."

In Cleveland, he founded the first AIM chapter outside Minneapolis, and he became the organization's first national coordinator in 1971.

In 1970, he was among a group of American Indian activists who occupied Mount Rushmore, where he infamously urinated on the top of the stone head of George Washington — an act he later said symbolized "how most Indians feel about the faces chiseled out of our holy land."

That November, he joined fellow AIM members and other Native Americans in taking over a replica of the Mayflower in Plymouth, Mass. And in 1972 he participated in the seven-day occupation and trashing of the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C.

But the controversial and flamboyant activist with the trademark long braids gained his greatest notoriety at the trading post hamlet of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

The occupation of Wounded Knee by more than 200 AIM-led activists began in late February 1973 in the wake of a failed attempt to impeach tribal president Richard Wilson, whose Oglala critics accused him of corruption and abuse of power and said his private militia suppressed political opponents.

After the takeover of Wounded Knee, the historic site of the 7th Cavalry's large-scale massacre of Sioux men, women and children in 1890, the area was cordoned off by about 300 U.S. marshals and FBI agents, who were armed with automatic weapons and aided by nine armored personnel carriers.

Among the occupiers' demands were that congressional hearings be held to protect historical benefits held in trust by the U.S. government.