Native American actor Wes Studi has appeared in more than 80 film and television productions — including "The Last of the Mohicans," "Dances with Wolves" and "Avatar" — portraying Indigenous characters with nuance and authenticity.
Now, he's set to become the first Native American to win an Oscar.
It's been announced that Studi, who is Cherokee, will receive an Academy Honorary Award in October. Buffy Sainte-Marie, a Canadian-American singer of First Nations descent, is so far the only Indigenous person to win an Oscar, earning a statue for Best Original Song in 1983.
"It was kind of a shock," Studi tells Here & Now of first finding out about the honor. "I was on set on a Western called 'Badlands.' I got a call from the [Academy] president and … the board of governors. He said, 'We would like to award you with a governors award.' I really didn't think it was going to happen."
Studi says he remembers breaking into acting "the old-fashioned way," getting his start with the American Indian Theater Company in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
"It was kind of a training theater for Native Americans. And as the company grew, they were able to mount a real equity show, and a real equity show brought in the late Will Sampson, actors from LA and New York," he says. "It was the very first time I had ever been paid for acting, and then as a result of that, people from Nebraska came. They were looking for Native talent to do educational television."
That led Studi to a role in a PBS docudrama called "The Trial of Standing Bear," about the Ponca chief who successfully argued in an 1879 court case that Native Americans were "persons within the meaning of the law." Studi eventually landed his first feature-film role in 1989.
Studi has portrayed members of multiple tribes during his career, including Ponca, Pawnee (in "Dances with Wolves"), Apache (in the 1993 movie "Geronimo") and Cheyenne (in the 2017 film "Hostiles"). He says filmmakers are taking the need for authenticity more seriously when telling stories about or involving Indigenous people.
"Normally they will work with consultants that are steeped in the knowledge of their cultures and languages, especially, and I think as time goes on we'll probably see more and more of what these cultures are really all about, in that more Native tribes are feeling more comfortable about sharing those parts of culture with the rest of the world," Studi says.
There is also a commonality that binds these tribes which actors can lean on in their portrayals, Studi says: trying to exist while "dealing with an onslaught from Europe."
"I think a lot of resentment can be used in terms of your acting presentation, if you know the history as well as what goes on to the present day," he says.
Studi says despite the efforts of celebrated Native American actors like himself and those who came before — Saginaw Grant, Jay Silverheels, Russell Means and others — there is work to be done when it comes to how Indigenous people are represented on screen.
"I think Hollywood could do better in developing characters that go beyond the stereotype, go a little bit further into [the] actual backstory of characters that mean something to the script," he says.
This segment aired on July 2, 2019.