One thing you may not read in obituaries of Native American political activist Russell Means, who died today, is that he had a ready sense of humor.

Sharing the same last name as him, I was long intrigued by the thought that in some distant way we were related. Of course it was highly unlikely. I was born and brought up in England, where my ancestors had lived for generations.

Still, when news of Russell Means and his kin filtered across the Atlantic in 1973, my relatives and I had to wonder. We did have records of an ancestor who emigrated to Wisconsin in the mid 19th century. Could there possibly be an Oglala/Lakota branch of the family?

Through 1973 we followed bulletins of the Native American confrontations at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota with more than a passing interest. In my youthful imagination, I have to admit, I even visualized myself trekking into Russell’s encampment with fresh supplies and perhaps reinforcements from the Means’ band across the water.

Years later, having moved to Arizona, I bought Russell’s autobiography and learned how he got his last name. As so often was the case, an Indian boarding school had adapted things to make them conform. In this case, one of Russell’s forebears had had his name changed to ‘Means’ from ‘Mean To His Horses’, which in turn was a mistranslation of ‘Trains His Horses Well’. I had to concede that I had no ancestors with that handle. So much for the English connection.

Still, my speculation was good for a laugh between us when Russell signed my copy at a book signing. “To Andrew Means,” he wrote, “Thanks for being part of the Means World!”

That sentence has stayed with me. A bureaucratic name change had made me feel a bond with a man and a cause and a culture. Russell was a controversial and combative figure who was both criticized and praised. Still, he helped shape my view of life. Thanks, Russell, for being part of my world!