One of the very first images – or flickers of light — ever put on film was shot by Thomas Edison on a kinescope in 1894 depicting Native Americans performing a sacred “Sioux Ghost Dance.”
Another film industry milestone will occur this October when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences bestows a Governors Award on Wes Studi, an industry veteran of 30 years and over 30 films who will become the very first Native American actor ever to receive an Oscar.
Media in all its forms (film, television, live theater, streaming, advertising, digital, social) is the most powerful cultural force in America…and the world. But with that power comes a huge responsibility. When we work together to portray accurate depictions of people and their culture and we do so in an artful and entertaining way – people choose to watch. This leads to greater understanding and tangible social impact.
Wes Studi has been making that impact for three decades. Perhaps one of the reasons that his intense — sometimes heroic, sometimes villainous — but always authentic screen portrayals have affected Native American viewers so profoundly is the almost complete lack of realistic Native American characters in the mass media. For most of the 20th Century, an endless stream of caricature “savage” portrayals in Hollywood Westerns defined an entire people. Some would say it wasn’t until Will Sampson played Chief Bromden in Milos Forman’s Academy Award-winning film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in 1975 that Native American moviegoers (and all audiences) ever saw a fully realized character performed with profound skill and grace by a Native American actor.
This brings me back to the potent effect Mr. Studi has had on our collective consciousness as Native Americans. In role after role, he brings dignity, integrity, heartache, humor, tenacity, nobility and hard-fought recognition with him. It doesn’t matter the character: the dogged LAPD detective in “Heat”; the truly frightening warrior Magua in the glorious “Last of the Mohicans” (an Oscar caliber performance in the minds of many critics); Chief Yellow Hawk in “Hostiles,” or the titular character in “Geronimo: An American Legend,” who wears the unfathomable sadness and humanity of an entire displaced race of people on his careworn face. It is his prodigious talent and artistry that have engendered pride and fostered self-esteem in countless Native Americans throughout his career.
Native Americans have a vast array of challenges facing them: tribal sovereignty, civil rights, the harmful, insidious effects of mascotization (the “R” word name of the Washington, D.C. NFL football team is a dictionary-defined racial slur), mental health issues and suicide prevention. For American Indians and Alaska Natives, suicide is a public health crisis. It is the second leading cause of death for those aged 10-34; it is also 1.5 times more common among American Indian and Alaska Native adolescents than among the general population. A lack of self-esteem and self-identify are among the source problems resulting in such harrowing statistics.
Expanding the way that Native Americans are portrayed in the mass media is an ongoing mission. The Oneida Nation commissioned the very first Native-themed float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade; produced the network documentary “The World of American Indian Dance” for NBC, and partnered with the Sundance Institute’s Native Forum for a multi-faceted collaboration to nurture Native filmmakers, among other entertainment industry initiatives.
This crucial work is also led by several dedicated advocacy within the entertainment community, including Academy member Sonny Skyhawk, whose non-profit American Indians in Film & Television has advanced the careers of Native artists in Hollywood for three decades. Thomas Edison’s footage of the “Sioux Ghost Dance” now resides in the Library of Congress. This October, the image of Wes Studi receiving a Governors Award will generate another flicker of light just as powerful…in the hearts and minds of Native American children throughout this country and indigenous people around the world.
That’s the true power of film.
Ray Halbritter is the nation representative and CEO of nation enterprises for the Oneida Indian Nation. He was an executive producer of “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World.”