From Geronimo to Avatar: Wes Studi's path to historic Oscar

From the Vietnam War to the American Indian Movement to the bright lights of Hollywood, veteran Cherokee actor Wes Studi has had a colourful life. And on Oct. 27, he became the first Indigenous actor to receive an Oscar for his work.

Cherokee actor is the first Indigenous actor to receive prestigious award

Wes Studi, in the film Geronimo: An American Legend. Studi will be honoured with an Oscar on Oct. 27, 2019, for his 30-year film career. (Sam Emerson/Columbia Pictures/Alamy)

Originally published on October 25, 2019. 

Cherokee actor Wes Studi's favourite role he's played so far is "the next one." 

Despite being in the business for more than 30 years, Studi is far from slowing down. In fact, he's about to make history.

On Oct. 27, Studi will become the first Indigenous actor to receive an honorary Oscar for his body of work, from cult classics to Academy Award winners. 

Studi has appeared in films like Powwow Highway, Dances with Wolves, The Last of the Mohicans and Mystery Men, but acting wasn't his first job. 

When he was 14, he asked his parents to send him to Chilocco Indian School, the same one his dad had attended.

It was there he saw the National Guard, and he felt compelled the join in his senior year. "I would see all the girls come out and just start checking them out," Studi said. "[I thought], 'Hey, those guys marching around in uniforms are kind of cool to those girls.'"

'War ... changed my view of life in the U.S.A.'

After graduating, he stopped attending meetings and training camps for the National Guard. But during the height of the Vietnam War, Studi was thrust into action and activated into the army. The idea of going to war excited him, he said. 

"There's truth to the fact that war is hell, and I think I saw the worst in men and the best in men," he said. "It certainly changed my view of life in the U.S.A., and a lot of it had to do with the fact that Vietnamese people, they're brown like us."

Studi introduces a tribute to films that honour service in the military at the Oscars on March 4, 2018, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/Associated Press)

He and another Indigenous person serving spoke frequently about their conflicting feelings. That man later died by suicide in Vietnam, Studi said.

It didn't change him, but Studi said those conversations and the death of his friend kickstarted an awakening.

After returning from the war, Studi said he spent time adjusting to life at home. He later joined the American Indian Movement's 1972 protest at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., and was at Wounded Knee the following year.

This turn to activism is often painted as a response to what he experienced in Vietnam, but Studi said that wasn't the case. "What I was involved in in Vietnam, I wouldn't give that up," he said. "I learned something there."

But activism was also something Studi felt proud to be a part of. "You feel like you are doing something that is bigger than yourself," he said. "It's a good thing to feel like you are doing the right thing, that you're on the right side of history, that what you're saying is true."

Next adrenaline rush

Always searching for the next adrenaline rush, Studi eventually turned to acting, where he saw some similarities to his experiences in combat.

"What if I fail? What if I mess up somebody else's lines? It's almost like I'm not watching this guy's back, like I would in combat," he said. "Performing in front of an audience is, at first, one of the scariest things in the world and overcoming that fear produces that adrenaline that my mind or body craved at the time."

Studi arrives at the premiere of Hostiles at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater on Dec. 14, 2017, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

His breakthrough role, playing the Toughest Pawnee in Dances with Wolves, was one of the first movies to portray Indigenous people with a level of empathy that landed in the mainstream. It spun into a five-year stretch where filmmakers were interested in more than what the American Indian had typically brought to films.

"There was an effort made by filmmakers to humanize the character of the American Indian," he said. "Some films did it and some didn't. But everybody was at least trying."

With that brief heightened interest, he and a few of the other Indigenous actors in Los Angeles would often see each other competing for the same roles. Once that interest slowed, Studi would audition for parts not linked to his Indigeneity. He landed one as Sphinx in Mystery Men.

People of colour landing roles not rooted in race is something Studi noticed wasn't happening enough at the time.

"We need a lot more of those kinds of things and in show business right now," he said. 

Throughout his many, many roles, Studi has always been proud of who he is. In 2017, on stage at the Oscars, Studi spoke Cherokee to the crowd. It wasn't a political statement, or something he felt he needed to do. It felt normal for him.

"I think it was very ordinary for me to speak Cherokee on that stage," he said. "A lot of Indians appreciated the fact that they heard a language other than English or European language that came from that stage."

He hopes that speech, and many of his movies, will make a difference for the next generation of  Indigenous kids who are watching.

"There's a certain validation of our existence when something like that happens," Studi said. "I know as a youngster it certainly did me no harm to see somebody who was a real Indian play the Indian.

"I just hope he's not watching Powwow Highway."


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