Wes Studi, Native American Icon
Wes Studi is known for reprising many Native roles, from the brutal Pawnee in Academy Award-winning Dances with Wolves, to the equally brutal Huron warrior Magua in Academy Award-winning The Last of the Mohicans, to the Academy Award-nominated Geronimo. And that was just in the first three years at the beginning of his film career! He would go on to appear in more than 80 films, television series, documentaries, and voice-overs (and he’s not done) and win numerous accolades.
Along the way, beginning in his early life, he would also be an activist, working for Native American causes. His film career and his activism would be his most defining roles in his life but those would not come until he was in his 30s. Before that, Wes Studi would have the most unlikely beginnings as a future film giant and Native American icon.
He was born in 1947 in Nofire Hollow, Oklahoma, of full-blooded Cherokee parents and grew up in a family speaking only Cherokee until he was five years old. He attended the Chilocco Indian Agricultural School and graduated in 1964 with a vocational major in dry cleaning. At age 17, he enlisted in the Oklahoma National Guard for a six-year stint. In his fifth year, he volunteered for Vietnam and served in the Company D of the 3rd Battalion, 39th Infantry, 9th Infantry Division. He arrived just in time for the Tet Offensive in the Mekong Delta and survived through many missions. On one mission, he was nearly killed when his company was pinned down by friendly fire.
When he came home from Vietnam, he threw himself into working for his tribal community. He taught the Cherokee language, worked on recording the Cherokee syllabary (language guide and alphabet) and helped establish a Cherokee language newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix.
He then joined the American Indian Movement (AIM) and participated in the Trail of Broken Treaties protest march in 1972, where hundreds of Native American activists marched on Washington. He was one of the protesters who briefly occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs Building there. In 1973, Wes participated in the occupation at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, for which he was arrested.
He was used to living on the edge, first in Nam and then at home through his activism. He even tried professional bull-riding during that time, seeking not only a line of work but a cathartic outlet.
His portal to acting came in 1984 when he became involved with the American Indian Theater Company in Tulsa. His first role was in a play called, Black Elk Speaks, based on the famous book.
Wes’s first film would be four years later: The Trial of Standing Bear in 1988. Studi was 41 years old. Only a year later, he would be hired to play the role of a violent Pawnee warrior in Dances with Wolves, that would be nominated for 12 Academy Awards and win seven. The movie would catapult Studi into a spectacular acting career, as well as redefine Westerns and the Native roles in them. In those three years—1990, 1991 and 1992—Studi would star in the three highly acclaimed, Academy Award winning or nominated films: Dances with Wolves, Last of the Mohicans, and Geronimo.
In 2002, Studi played Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn for a PBS series of movies based on the famous Native writer, Tony Hillerman’s novels set among the Navajo and Hopi. The series was produced by Robert Redford.
In 2005, Studi starred in the film, The New World, portraying Chief Openchancanough, leader of the Powhatan Confederacy in Virginia.
In 2009, Studi appeared as Major Ridge, leader of the Cherokee in the film Trail of Tears, in which he spoke his native Cherokee. The film was part of a groundbreaking PBS series, We Shall Remain, portraying Native American history during white settlement.
Also in 2009, Studi appeared in James Cameron’s mega-hit Avatar. He played Eytukan, the chieftain of a Na'vi tribe.
The year 2017 was a big year in which Studi played Cheyene Chief Yellow Hawk in the film Hostiles. That same year, at the 90th Academy Awards, he was presenter for a tribute to war movies and gave part of his speech in Cherokee to war veterans. He was only the second Native American to present at the Oscars after Will Rogers in 1934.
In 2019, he became the first Native American to receive an Oscar for acting—an Academy Lifetime Achievement. He has appeared in more than 80 films, televisions series, and documentaries. He also won the Western Heritage Award for the film Geronimo and was inducted into the Hall of Fame of Great Western Performers at the Western Heritage Center in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Studi was only the second Native American to be inducted into the Center after Jay Silverheels who played Tonto in The Lone Ranger.
When Wes Studi accepted his Academy Award, he said: "I'd simply like to say, it's about time. It's been a wild and wonderful ride, and I'm really proud to be here tonight as the first indigenous Native American to receive an Academy Award. It's a humbling honor to receive an award for something I love to do.”
Studi has been widely recognized as making great contributions to films depicting Native Americans with authenticity, great attention to detail, and respectful of Native culture and language. He’s spoken a number of Native languages in his movies beginning with Dances with Wolves. The 1990s really brought a boon to the trend but it wasn’t always so. Decades before, Native roles were played by whites and were simplistic and often demeaning stereotypes.
In an interview with the Seattle Times, Studi explained the transition in the film industry:
There was one real Indian that we all recognized when I was a kid, and that was Jay Silverheels. We saw him on a weekly basis (as Tonto) on “The Lone Ranger.One time I asked my dad, “How does somebody get into the acting business?” He told me, “You have to be 6 feet tall and blond-haired and blue-eyed to be in movies and on television.” And at that point it was fairly true — except for Jay Silverheels. And that was a source of pride for everyone.
In the ’70s, with movies like “Little Big Man,” Westerns began to have a little different flavor, and I think casting people and filmmakers began to realize, “Hey, maybe we can get a little more authentic in terms of who we cast here.” That kind of opened up the gates. Chief Dan George, Will Sampson and Jay Silverheels all got the ball rolling.
As a champion of his Native roots, Studi has worked tirelessly to preserve and celebrate Native American legacies and cultures especially through his own depictions of Native characters on the screen. And he’s been a passionate advocate for promoting and preserving indigenous languages and has taken a national leadership role as a spokesperson and honorary board member for the Indigenous Language Institute.
Studi has always taken his responsibility of portraying historical characters very seriously. He cites his iconic role as Geronimo:“Geronimo was a symbol for many people in many different ways. He was a man who actually influenced history.”
The same can be said of Wes Studi. He is a symbol for many people in many different ways. And he was influenced history, and altered how Americans and the world see Native Americans. He is a modern-day Geronimo who has used his language, acting and activist skills to peaceably conquer America back again.
See related posts:
-Dances with Wolves: The 30th Anniversary
-Dances with Wolves: Native Perspectives
-Dramas with Native Actors
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