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The Angriest Actor : Native American activist Russell Means focused his fierce will at Wounded Knee. Can a revolutionary co-exist with 'Pocahontas'?

June 11, 1995|Elaine Dutka | Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer

" 'Pocahontas' is the first time Eurocentric male society has admitted its historical deceit," says Means. "It makes the stunning admission that the British came over here to kill Indians and rape and pillage the land.

" 'Lion King' was this generation's 'Bambi,' demonstrating that animals have feelings and causing children to question the morality of sport hunting," he continues. " 'Pocahontas' teaches that pigmentation and bone structure have no place in human relations. It's the finest feature film on American Indians Hollywood has turned out."

The activist-cum-actor is sitting in the living room of a modest, prefabricated two-bedroom house in this community of 5,000--site of the Navajo Reservation's breathtaking Canyon de Chelly and a world away from Spago. His Federal Express address is "half-a-mile northwest of Church's Fried Chicken." A hand-printed sign--"Please remove thy shoes"--is posted by the door.

Books such as Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" and "Strategic Investing" sit on the shelves. Navajo rugs line the floor. A black cat and a deaf Dalmatian roam the 13-acre property, eyeing the five horses in the corral. A fax machine and a 31-inch TV keep Means plugged into the fast track.

Means and his fourth wife, Gloria, had the house built in 1987--opting, in the Native American fashion, to live in a new home rather than inherit the spirits of past occupants. Though the two are divorced, Means heads to Chinle twice a month to see their sons, ages 10 and 4. He divides the rest of his time between Porcupine, S.D., and a rent-controlled Santa Monica apartment where a friend's daughter's bicycle--or running--is his transportation of choice.

If family is a mainstay of Native American life, it's a new-found priority for Means--father of 13 (about half of them adopted) and grandfather of 18.

"Yasser Arafat was right when he said that revolutionaries shouldn't be married," he says. "It's sad, but work has always come between me and my relationships. Though they all turned out well, it breaks my heart that my children were without me at important times of their lives."

What turned things around was a 30-day total-immersion treatment program at Arizona's Cottonwood de Tucson ("a non-Indian hideaway for rich people") in which Means enrolled after "The Last of the Mohicans" wrapped. The therapy not only enabled him to work through unresolved issues with three younger brothers and an abusive, if loving, mother, but probably saved his life, he says. Without AIM as an outlet--and, before that, alcohol and drugs--anger was making him "self-destructive and suicidal."

"Like Nixon, I had a hit list, targeting Indians and non-Indians alike," says Means, who can reel off titles and dates of treaties the United States has broken with his people. "Rather than becoming a martyr, I discovered that my anger was rooted in low self-esteem. That surprised everyone I knew--including me."

Means encountered racism early on when his father, a welder and auto mechanic, moved the family from South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation to Vallejo, Calif., dropping him into an unfamiliar, racially mixed world.

At 16, he enrolled in a virtually all-white school in San Leandro where he faced a barrage of ethnic insults and drifted into delinquency. After his high school graduation, he worked as a ballroom dance instructor, a cowboy, a day laborer and an accountant. Though he attended five colleges, officials refused to transfer credits, he says, preventing him from earning a degree.

The establishment of AIM in 1968 gave Means a much-needed sense of direction. Excited by its militancy, he founded the group's second chapter, in Cleveland. In an event he calls "the most photographed of the 1970s after Watergate and Vietnam," he co-led a 1973 takeover at Wounded Knee. It was the first time, says Means--a staunch advocate of Native American separatism--that he ever felt "free." Though the standoff left two Native Americans dead and a federal marshal paralyzed, the felony charges against Means and Banks were ultimately thrown out on grounds of prosecutorial misconduct.

If some view his foray into show business as a cop-out, others say Means is playing the game on his own terms. Refusing to be part of the "meat market," he adopts a deliberate monotone at auditions. He has passed up scripts containing negative stereotypes. He won't work for Ted Turner because the Atlanta Braves owner championed the "tomahawk chop"--an "obscene gesture toward American Indians"--on nationwide TV. Acting lessons have never been part of his game plan.

Means agreed to read for the title role in "Mohicans" provided the producers sent a first-class ticket by mail. (Arriving at the airport to find a coach seat reserved, he turned around and went home.) Unexpectedly asked to stay overnight once he arrived in L.A., Means later handed an astounded producer a $600-plus Neiman Marcus bill to cover the cost of "basics."

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