Movies: Native film star tells of his hero’s journey, on and offscreen
For Wes Studi, playing a character confronting colonial powers while speaking another language is nothing new.
On Dec. 18, the Cherokee film actor will bring just such a role to life in a new 3-D sci-fi thriller by “Titantic” director James Cameron. In “Avatar,” the people of Earth seek to exploit the natural resources of a distant planet, stirring its inhabitants to stand up against the invasion. Studi’s computer-generated character a father who helps lead the resistance.
Studi, who has appeared in scores of films and television productions, was recently honored by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian’s Native Achievers Series. A 61-year-old Vietnam veteran, Studi has been called a Cherokee traditionalist and honored for his work in Native language preservation, particularly the Cherokee language.
To kick off the Native Achievers Series at the museum in Washington, Studi sat down with N. Bird Runningwater of the Sundance Institute for a wide-ranging public conversation. He discussed his roots, how he taps the emotions of injustice to portray warriors in film, and how keeping Native languages alive requires a tongue willing to take chances.
Runningwater: You grew up on your grandparents’ allotment.
Studi: Nofire Hollow was a real hollow, not a post office, not a town. You people from the South know what a hollow is. Nofire Hollow is what it’s been known after allotments were issued to Cherokee citizens. 160 acres. My grandfather and grandmother and their kids lived in the Hollow. It was ours. We had gardens and water running through the hollow. Before then, it was known as Nickel Jack, but it lost its meaning over time. It’s between Tahlequah and Stillwell, Okla.
Runningwater: Boarding school was a part of your upbringing. How old were you when you left home for the first time?
Studi: I guess I should stop blaming my aunt for sending me off to an orphanage. She convinced my mother and everyone else that I would get a better education living there and going to public school. That’s where I learned English within nine months. It was enough to pass first grade. When I went home I discovered, oh wow, I couldn’t speak Cherokee anymore. A little English-speaking boy in a Cherokee home, where everyone was adamant that we speak Cherokee. I managed to learn the Cherokee language again.
I went to Chilocco Indian School from ’60 to ’64. I went there not because I was whisked away. I went there by choice because my dad had gone there. I thought, now I can move away from my mom’s beans and cornbread to what we called white bread, Wonder Bread, at Chilocco.
Up to this point I only knew there were Cherokees and Creeks and, my God, there were so many kinds of Indians at that school. It probably had a population of 1,500 Indians. We were part of that Chilocco civilized tribe. We didn’t ride horses and we dressed like white folks. I wanted in time to identify with my Cheyenne brothers, my plains brothers. In all the pictures of us, we were dressed in colonial-wear.
Runningwater: My parents went to Chilocco also. That’s why I’m mixed. And they remember you. So in your early adult years what was your experience of cinema?
Studi: In the 1970s, we only had the late Will Sampson (who was Muscogee Creek, best known for his role in “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”) and Chief Dan George (of the Tsleil-waututh Nation, best known for his role in “Little Big Man”) who were in acting. Unfortunately, in the early 1980s David Carradine played Black Elk. These guys were being cast as Native American. Some people started going, really, these Indian actors can do it. Then “Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson” (1976) with Paul Newman came out. (Frank Kaquitts, a white actor, played Sitting Bull.) It was directed by Robert Altman. I’d seen the play and went to see the film. (He shakes his head in disapproval.) There were other films that sought to portray us in a different light in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But many were appalled that Indians wanted to play Indians.
Runningwater: You did some stage work in Oklahoma.
Studi: I went to Tulsa looking for work. I found work at the Gas Light Dinner Theater. It paid $12 per night and all you could eat. One weekend after calling bingo, a bunch of us after partying ended up in jail. I made the deal to do “The Trial of Standing Bear” (a 1988 TV movie shot at Chilocco in which Studi played Long Runner) from a jail cell. After two or three weeks’ shooting, it was over. I realized there was nothing I could do to continue acting in Northwest Oklahoma. So I went to LA. At the time an organization that Jay Silverheels (Mohawk, best known for playing Tonto) and Will Sampson put together sent us to agents who looked for work for people. It didn’t enter my head that I could get paid for this. After a year and a half, I got “Powwow Highway.”
Runningwater: It’s such an iconic film, especially for Native audiences. After that you went on to do an obscure film called “Dances With Wolves.”
Studi: I had my doubts about that film. It’s not my first Western, but it felt to me as if it might not work. I wasn’t part of the Lakota Party. I played a Pawnee. It was almost therapeutic how easy it is to get into that mindset of warrior-ism. (He lets out a high-pitched screech.) You kind of think of the injustice Indian people lived through. It’s pretty easy to draw from the kind of feeling. You have a completely different aggression than the white folks.
When the movie opened, I worked in a store across the street. “Dances With Wolves” had a process of growing its audience. Day by day, lines kept getting longer. I’d already spent my money I made from “Dances With Wolves,” and I’m across the street from the theater trying to sell bracelets in a jewelry store. I’d say, “Wow, that looks good on you, really good.”
Runningwater: In “The Last of the Mohicans” you speak a language that isn’t your own. How did you approach that language?
Studi: It’s phonetic. Languages do that; they change with the lift of the voice. Because I do speak another tongue besides English, my tongue is more willing to take chances. I know I am not going to speak perfectly. For languages to continue to be learned, people are going to have to take a chance, and the people listening are going to have to be tolerant. If languages are going to go on they are going to have to be part of the present.
Runningwater: In “We Shall Remain: Trail of Tears” you actually played someone from your own tribe; you played Major Ridge, a prosperous Cherokee landowner who argued for giving up the Cherokee homeland and relocating, actions that would leader to the Trail of Tears.
Studi: Unfortunately, I got to play a fellow who in my mind and other people’s minds was a villain. I had always known one side of the story. This opened my eyes to the actual decisions that had to be made.
Runningwater: You’ve appeared in more than 60 films and television shows. You’ve played a bingo caller, a warrior, historic leaders, a fireman, a detective and even a superhero in “Mystery Men.”
Studi: For “Mystery Men,” I walked in and said, “You must fight like the wolf pack, not like the superhero.” It made the audition team laugh. I have even made it to outer space in “Avatar” (to be released Dec. 18), a James Cameron film about inhabitants of another planet. My skin is a different color, and we speak a made-up language.
Wes Studi’s comments were transcribed live and N. Bird Runningwater’s questions were paraphrased by permission. The American Indian News Service is produced for the National Museum of the American Indian by journalist Kara Briggs, Yakama/Snohomish. All content is free to publish or post. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit the American Indian News Service at www.americanindiannews.org.