Ways and Means

Over four decades, Russell Means has led an insurrection, posed for Andy Warhol, aspired to be an assassin and been arguably the most influential public figure in fighting racism against the American Indian. Now, in his quest to start his own country, the road to success might run down Embassy Row.

  1. The voice was booming and imperious as it came out of the bathroom, wafting over the blandly hip decor of the Dupont Circle hotel room. "If you excuse me a moment," said Russell Means, "I'm going to braid my hair."

    I knew that Means was not talking about some quick twist-and-tie ponytail job, but rather the painstaking culmination of a resplendent costume. Means is 6-foot-1, with a powerful broad-boned physique. He is the actor who played the last Mohican in the 1992 film The Last of the Mohicans, and he is the onetime leader of the revolutionary American Indian Movement, or AIM. Arguably the most famous living Indian activist, he performs his role with panache. Already on this bright, cold morning in February, he was wearing dangling turquoise earrings, a crimson wool Navajo vest and black silver-tipped cowboy boots. His broad, truculent brow was creased with wear.

    Means's life has been something like a Johnny Cash song. He has done prison time for inciting a riot, and has been stabbed, accused of murder, hit by two bullets and divorced four times. Long ago, he was a fancy dance champion and a rodeo star. Even now, at age 68, he remains a forceful presence—a warrior.

    On this visit to the nation's capital, Means was, per usual, fighting the United States of America. Along with three other Lakota Indians, he had recently severed his ties with the United States and declared himself a founding member of a new, autonomous nation—the Republic of Lakotah. Unsanctioned by their t...