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.
It’s not easy playing Indian in Hollywood. For starters, there aren’t many roles for the Indigenous peoples of North America. The roles that do exist in mainstream entertainment are usually historical in nature and shockingly the native actors don’t always get the part. With the emerging talent of Indigenous filmmakers, Native American and First Nations actors are getting opportunities to showcase their talent on the independent film circuit. Sometimes that leads to roles in wide-release films and television shows. Here are five actors the Geekdom should be watching.
Zahn McClarnon is Hunkpapa Lakota, Standing Rock Sioux and Irish from Denver, CO. His acting career began in the 90s and he has appeared in many television shows, miniseries, and films. He has even performed on Broadway in the play Ringer. Zahn’s career has picked up quite a bit lately with roles in Longmire, Queen of the South and Fargo season 2. But it is his role as Ghost Nation leader, Akecheta in Westworld that gave his career a huge boost this past summer.
Akecheta is the central character in Westworld season two, episode eight, “Kiksuya.” The character was featured as both a vision of the future and the misrepresentation of Native Americans of the past. Akecheta, an artificial intelligence being, was one of the first hosts to ‘wake up’ in the park. He went unnoticed by park administrators, much like how Native Americans were forgotten by the US government. Critics called this episode one of the best of the series, earning McClarnon critical acclaim for portraying the AI host.
McClarnon narrates his story in Lakota, the language of his mother’s family. The language gave the story more authenticity and at the same time, more poignancy. It was a transformative experience to hear the language spoken throughout the episode in such a beautiful and artistic way.
Devery Jacobs, Mohawk, was born and raised on the Mohawk reservation in Kahnawake, Quebec, Canada. Jacobs did some community acting as a young girl. Her big break came when she got the role as Aila in Rhymes for Young Ghouls. That role earned are a nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in the 2014 Canadian Screen Awards. Her television credits include The Dead Zone series, Assassin’s Creed: Lineage and Mohawk Girls. She also a member of The Walking Dead family, voicing the character Sam in Telltale Games The Walking Dead: Michonne.
In addition to acting, Jacobs writes and directs indigenous short films. Her first film, Stolen focuses on the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. The film won Best Aboriginal Film at the 2017 Yorkton Film Festival.
Jacobs continues her work in front the camera and can be seen in American Gods season 2 as Sam Black Crow.
Martin Sensmeier is Tlingit, Koyukon-Athabascan, and Irish descent from Tlingit Coastal Community in Yakutat, Alaska. It is a community with no connecting roads. Sensmeier is one of the newer faces in Indigenous film. He worked as a welder before moving to Los Angeles in 2007 where he got work as a model. He had a few small parts before landing the role of Red Harvest in The Magnificent Seven in 2016. This was his first major role and he has since appeared in the movie Wind River and the HBO hit series Westworld as a member of the Ghost Nation.
Sensmeier is using his fame to promote wellness in native communities. He is an ambassador for The Native Wellness Institute, as well as the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and advocates for wellness among Native people of all Nations. He is enjoying his impact on the youth back home. Sensmeier told Cowboys & Indians magazine that he didn’t really appreciate the significance of his acting until his uncle told him a story about kids in the community wanting to be Red Harvest just from seeing him in the trailer.
Sensmeier’s next project is the biopic of Jim Thorpe titled Bright Path: The Jim Thorpe Story produced by Angelina Jolie and written by Native American writer and director Sterlin Harjo, Abraham Taylor and Alex Nibley.
Amber Midthunder is member of Fort Peck Sioux Tribe and she is from New Mexico. Acting is in her blood as she is the daughter of David Midthunder, who began acting in the 80’s and most recently appeared in Westworld. Her mother is casting director Angelique Midthunder, so she is familiar with how Hollywood works. “I grew up around the industry,” she told the New York Post, “Whenever my dad had a job, I would go visit him on set. That’s really my foundation … watching my parents do their thing. They let me figure that out.”
Midthunder has appeared in Banshee, Longmire, and the feature film Hell Or High Water. Her big break came when she got the part as Kerry Loudermilk in FX’s Marvel series Legion. Kerry is a mutant who shares a body with older white man also named Cary Loudermilk and they are polar opposites. The character identifies as Native, but does not give a specific tribe. “My role in ‘Legion’ was not originally written as a Native American,” she says. “I just went in and got the job, and it’s mentioned in one episode. It’s not ignored but it’s not the centerpiece. I think that is the biggest compliment that you can give to any minority: inclusion but not focus. I’m a Native American girl, but I’m also so many other things.”
Look for Midthunder in Legion season three. She can also be seen in the new series Roswell, New Mexico on the CW later this year.
Like Wes Studi and McClarnon, Adam Beach has been around for quite some time. Beach is an Anishinaabe member of the Saulteaux tribe of the Dog Creek Lake Reserve in Manitoba. He has appeared in over 60 television shows and films, including Law & Order: SVU, Cowboys and Aliens, and Hostiles. He has played many historical figures, such as Squanto, Charles Eastman, and many other warriors of the past. His big break came in the biopic Wind Talkers. He played Ben Yazzie, a Navajo Code Talker who served in World War II. Beach was so honored that he insisted on getting permission from the Navajo Nation before accepting the part.
Beach was nominated for a Golden Globe his role in the HBO special Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. He played Dr. Charles Eastman, the first Native American to write American history from the Native American perspective. He received an award for Best Actor at the 1998 San Diego World Film Festival for his role in Smoke Signals. Smoke Signals is the only mainstream film written, produced and directed by Native Americans, about Native Americans. The cast was primarily Native American and First Nations actors with only a couple of non-native speaking roles.
Most of geekdom will recognize Beach from his latest big role as Slipknot in DC’s Suicide Squad. Even though he only said like five words and died within the first 20 minutes, his appearance in a superhero movie was a big deal. Indigenous actors are rarely picked in blind casting. His role helped set the pace for more indigenous representation in mainstream pop culture and it greatly influenced the idea that indigenous actors could play any part.
Representation is a big deal these days. These actors, and many others have made their mark on Hollywood, but we still have a long ways to go. As long as there are westerns, indigenous actors will have roles to audition for. It’s the modern, futuristic, fantasy, sci-fi and superhero movies and television where we need more inclusion of indigenous faces. I look forward to the day we get an all Indigenous superhero movie or an all native zombie apocalypse television show. Maybe it’s already in the works!
These above are just a few of the many indigenous faces that have appeared in mainstream entertainment. Check out their IMDB pages for a list of their works.
I’ve decided that each week at the end of this column, I will say ‘thank you’ for reading in a native language. This week, I will use one of my native languages and in its original spelling. My grandmother was a full blood Mvskoke (Muskogee) Creek woman. She didn’t speak the language but she understood it perfectly. I know very little of my own languages, but I do know how to say ‘thank you.’ So until next time…
DISCLAIMER: The opinions are my own and do not represent all Indigenous peoples.
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