Welcome to this week’s installment of Geek Girl Authority Indigenerd Wire, wherein we shine a spotlight on the indigenous people in pop culture. This a bi-monthly column will feature the people, shows, movies, art and books that celebrate the progress of indigenous perspectives in the mainstream pop culture. 

DISCLAIMER: The following opinions are my own and do not represent all Indigenous peoples.  

I like to be able to raise people’s consciousness, yes. And to remind that those of us involved in the receiving end of the oppression, we have a duty. – Wes Studi

You may not recognize his name, but trust me, you’ve seen his face.  He is the most famous actor in Indian County. From the Toughest Pawnee in Dances with Wolves to the werewolf Kaetenay in Penny Dreadful, this man has done it all.   Folks…Wes Studi.

I met Mr. Studi at the Native Crossroads Film Festival in Norman, Oklahoma.  He was there representing a short film comedy he stars in called Ronnie BoDean by Stephen Paul Judd.  I was in awe of Mr. Studi because 1.) he’s a movie star and 2.) he’s from my home state of Oklahoma, and 3.) he’s the biggest star to ever appear at the festival..  He was the most humble and gracious movie star I’ve ever met.

Heroes of the Past

Studi is a member of the Cherokee Nation and grew up in Nofire Hollow in rural Oklahoma.  He only spoke the Cherokee language until he was five. Growing up, Studi’s favorite show was The Lone Ranger.  He watched just to see Tonto, played by Native actor Jay Silverheels.  Studi started acting in plays in Tulsa, Oklahoma and eventually ended up on television in Nebraska. Studi then got an agent and landed his first movie role in a film titled, Powwow Highway.  All of this happening when Studi was in his 40s! If you look at his IMDB page, he’s been pretty busy ever since.

Studi has become the most recognizable Native American actor in films today.  He has appeared in over 80 films and has portrayed heroes and villains opposite the likes of Kevin Costner (Dances with Wolves), Daniel Day Lewis (Last of the Mohicans), and most recently Christian Bale (Hostiles).

Wes Studi

Wes Studi as Chief Yellow Hawk and Christian Bale as Capt. Joseph J. Blocker in Hostiles. Entertainment Studios – © 2017 YLK Distribution LLC

Studi has also made appearances on many television shows.  Most recently appearing in SundanceTV’s The Red Road and AMC’s Hell on Wheels.  In both shows he portrayed Indian leaders dealing with life or death issues of the Indigenous people.  The Red Road gave Studi a chance to tackle some of the modern issues that Native Americans face today. In an interview with SundanceTV, Studi says life is just as challenging today as it was in the past.  “While actual physical lives were a great matter back in the days of the Hell on Wheels chief that I played, now it’s more like financial lives — reputations and social status with what Chief Levi Gall purports to do. I don’t think the stakes are any different, just perhaps the measure of them is different.”

Breaking Barriers

Studi has been pushing down the walls of Indian stereotypes for years.  In an interview with the LA Times, Studi said he would like to be known as just an actor and not a Native American actor. “I’ve had some non-ethnic-specific roles that have allowed me to do that and I continue to look for those kinds of roles, as well as filmmakers who are willing to take a chance.”  

Though it sounds like Studi only plays the token Western Indian warrior, he has actually played roles in a variety of film genres. He appeared as the underground superhero Sphinx in 1999 movie Mystery Men and the video game super villain, Victor Saget in 1994’s Street Fighter.  His most modern and technologically challenging role has been Eytukan, the chieftain of a Na’vi tribe in James Cameron’s 2000 film Avatar. Like many in the cast, Studi filmed his role in a motion capture suit.

Throughout his career, Studi has served as director, writer and producer on projects. And although he has seen many sides and styles of filmmaking, he says the western is his ‘bread and butter,’ and it’s an easy role for identifiable native actors. However, he’d like to do more roles where he feels he hasn’t been pigeonholed. “Now I think more and more people are becoming involved [in film] and beginning to make films with their own ideas. We’re just looking for the first big crossover film that is Native American-themed and written and produced and everything.”

Wes Studi

Wes Studi at the 2018 Academy Awards Ceremony. Photo by Kevin Winter – © 2018 Getty Images, Kevin Winter – Image courtesy gettyimages.com

The Oscar Stage

Studi has definitely earned his place in Hollywood. Studi presented a new segment at the 2018 Academy Awards, paying tribute to the movies about the armed forces.  During this segment, Studi briefly talked about his military service and took the opportunity to say thank you in the Cherokee language. He is the first Indigenous actor to present at the Oscars.  And this is the first time audiences heard an Indigenous language spoken on the Oscar stage. (wipes tears)

Hearing Studi speak in his native language in front of millions watching the live broadcast was emotional for me.   I’m not from the Cherokee Nation, but it gives me an so much pride to see Indigenous people represented so well.  I felt like for the first time, the world saw us…they saw me through Mr. Studi.  It’s rare that native people are seen so distinguished and well spoken.  Mr. Studi gave us a place in the movie industry and he continues to strive for better representation in front of and behind the camera.

I am a champion of anything that brings diversity to a predominantly White industry. Especially coming from someone I’ve watched my whole life break down barriers for future Indigenous filmmakers.  When I look at Wes Studi, I don’t see a warrior of the past.  I see a trendsetter and trailblazer for indigenizing the film industry.  And I hope the next time I see him on the Oscar stage, he will be accepting an award. 

Wado (thank you) Mr. Studi!

RELATED: GGA’s IndigeNerd Wire: What is an Indigenerd?



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