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American Indian activist Russell Means dies

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- Russell Means spent a lifetime as a modern American Indian warrior. He railed against broken treaties, fought for the return of stolen land and even took up arms against the federal government.

A onetime leader of the American Indian Movement, he called national attention to the plight of impoverished tribes and lamented the waning of Indian culture. After leaving the movement in the 1980s, the handsome activist was still a cultural presence, appearing in several movies.

Means, who died Monday of throat cancer at age 72, helped lead the 1973 uprising at Wounded Knee -- a bloody confrontation that raised America's awareness about the struggles of Indians and gave rise to a wider protest movement that lasted for the rest of the decade.

Before AIM, there were few national advocates for American Indians. Means was one of the first to emerge. He sought to restore Indians' pride in their culture and to challenge a government that had paid little attention to tribes in generations. He was also one of the first to urge sports teams to do away with Indian names and mascots.

"No one except Hollywood stars and very rich Texans wore Indian jewelry," Means said, recalling the early days of the movement. And there were dozens, if not hundreds, of athletic teams "that in essence were insulting us, from grade schools to college. That's all changed."

AIM was founded in the late 1960s to demand that the government honor its treaties with American Indian tribes. The movement eventually faded away, Means said, as Native Americans became more self-aware and self-determined.

, a judge threw out the charges on grounds of government misconduct.Other protests led by Means included an American Indian prayer vigil on top of Mount Rushmore and the seizure of a replica of the Mayflower on Thanksgiving Day in Plymouth, Mass.

But Means' constant quest for the spotlight raised doubts about his motives. Critics who included many fellow tribe members said his main interest was building his own notoriety.

Means said his most important accomplishment was the proposal for the Republic of Lakotah, a plan to carve out a sovereign Indian nation inside the United States. He took the idea all the way to the UN, even though it was ignored by tribal governments including his own Oglala Sioux leaders, with whom he often clashed.

For decades, Means was dogged by questions about whether the group promoted violence, especially the 1975 slaying of a woman in the tribe and the gun battles at Wounded Knee. Two activists -- Arlo Looking Cloud and John Graham -- were both eventually convicted of murder. The third has never been charged.

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An Oglala Sioux Tribe said wake services for Means will be Wednesday on Pine Ridge, and his ashes will be scattered in the Black Hills on Thursday.

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