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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

CHINLE, Ariz. — Russell Means has collected a number of heavy-duty credits--though not the sort usually associated with show business folk.

While his acting colleagues were boning up on "The Method" and Stanislavsky, he and fellow American Indian Movement leader Dennis Banks led a 71-day armed siege at South Dakota's Wounded Knee Reservation. While other actors waited on tables, he was incarcerated for a year for obstructing justice in a 1974 Sioux Falls riot.

While they worked on movement and muscle tone, he publicized his people's desire for self-determination by forming controversial alliances with Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt, the Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church and the Libertarian Party, whose 1988 Presidential nomination he sought.

Yet the leap from political activism to acting, colleagues say, is smaller than one might think -- a natural extension of a 25-year battle waged by one of America's savviest showmen.

"Russell has always been very mediagenic," says Hanay Geiogamah, who joined AIM in 1971 and now co-produces a series of Native American TV movies on TNT. "He was eloquent, capable of synthesizing complex political ideas for the press and, with his long black braids and statuesque physique, the image the media wanted to see. Russell was smart enough to realize that when you've got it, you've got it. He used the system . . . and used it well."

If Means--who made his motion picture debut as the title character in 1992's "The Last of the Mohicans"--is using the motion picture industry, it's without question a two-way street.

When he surfaces as the voice of Pocahontas' father, Chief Powhatan, in the Disney animated feature opening Friday, he brings not only dramatic skills but instant legitimacy and authenticity. It was an inspired move by a studio that stumbled into a minefield with its portrayal of Arabs in "Aladdin" in 1993.

"I haven't abandoned the movement for Hollywood. . . . I've just added Hollywood to the movement," says Means, whose speech and gait reflect his abhorrence of hurrying.

Abalone earrings with an eagle imprint set off his penetrating brown eyes. Waist-length braids are bound in silver-trimmed burgundy suede. "The entertainment world is a powerful venue for revolution, particularly now that there are 500 channels on the horizon and the global market is so big. The Great Mystery has, once again, put me in the right place at the right time."

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Reared on John Wayne and Randolph Scott movies glorifying the slaughter of his people, Means was put on the defensive early on. Almost as unhappy with what he considered the stereotypical portrayals in more recent offerings such as "Black Robe," "Geronimo" and even "Dances With Wolves" (whose "white savior" story line led him to dub it "Lawrence of the Plains"), he vowed to work from within.

In a multimedia assault on Hollywood, the 55-year-old Oglala Lakota Sioux wrote a treatment for a detective series in which he'd star with his son, is developing a cartoon show based on Native American legends and recently portrayed Sitting Bull on CBS' "Buffalo Girls." On the big screen, he is co-producing a drama about Wounded Knee with Warner Bros. and has turned out a screenplay about Central American Indians. Portraying the ghost of Jim Thorpe in the Disney Channel's "Wind Runner," he also was featured in the John Candy comedy "Wagons East" and played a dangerous shaman in "Natural Born Killers."

"Russell's a renegade with one foot in both corrals, someone who has walked a crooked and strange life," says director Oliver Stone. "He's a very authoritative presence with his own brand of magic. Whether he's acting or not is hard to say."

Recalling the freewheeling "genius" of Robin Williams as the voice of "Aladdin's" genie, imagining the basso profundo voice-over pros he'd be up against, Means headed for the "Pocahontas" audition with considerable trepidation. Disney, too, didn't know what to expect.

"No one doubted that Russell is an imposing personality," says Jim Pentecost, producer of the movie. "The question was whether he could come across on voice alone. The fact that he's such a figurehead was a double-edged sword. Like any activist, he might object to what we were doing."

Initially, Means admits, he had some problems with the script. Native Americans addressed each other using proper names rather than the traditional "my father" or "my friend," and at one point a Pueblo melody was inserted in place of music of the Powhatans--the tribe indigenous to colonial Jamestown where, according to legend, the Indian princess (portrayed by Irene Bedard) prevented the execution of Capt. John Smith (Mel Gibson) and managed to avert a war.

Still, Means says, "scholastic, linear-thinking nit-pickers" fixated on the movie's historical inaccuracies are missing the point.

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