Native American’s have been captured on film since the time that filming and photography was made possible. In the silent film era Indian-themed films were quite popular. People probably saw more Native American’s on the screen during the 20th century than they would ever see up close and personal in their entire lives. The problem here is that, over time, stereotypes were created that became the basis for what people thought they knew about indigenous people. Thankfully, we now know better!
Native American’s have not only produced their own films, but have starred in many as well. In early movie making days, when Westerns were popular, Native American’s looking to break into film had the option of either portraying a version of Native American Indians that was unflattering or giving up trying to get an acting job altogether. As we moved into the 60’s, Western films became less popular and Native American actors found less and less work.
This changed when the movie Dances with Wolves came out because it featured many prominent Native American actors, like Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman and Graham Greene, while giving us in the audience a better representation of the culture. The Last of The Mohicans was another film that helped bring a better understanding of Native American customs that Dances with Wolves seemed to lack.
Native American actors and actresses don’t just play Native American roles though. They have portrayed a wide variety of characters through the years from narrating the story of One Flew over the Cookoo’s Nest to playing shape changing wolves in the Twilight Saga.
Some actors that you may not have known are Native American:
Jimi Hendrix – 1 quarter Cherokee via his grandmother’s side.
Tori Amos – of Cherokee ancestry on her mother’s side
Will Rogers – part Cherokee
Johnny Depp – Creek Indian from his grandmother’s side
Mandy Moore – Native American Descent
Billy Ray Cyrus – Cherokee heritage
Jonas Brothers- are said to have Cherokee ancestry
Elvis Presley – his great-great-great grandmother, Morning White Dove, was a full blooded Cherokee
Some Native American stars did more than just act. Russell Means, who was in the Last of the Mohicans, was also a writer, singer, and painter. More importantly, he was an activist for the rights of Native Americans. He became a very prominent figure of the American Indian Movement, which organized some high profile events that drew both national and international coverage.
Fun Fact: Jay Silverheals, who played the role of the Lone Ranger, was Native American.
Branscombe Richmond is another highly recognized Native American actor who also sings and does stunts. He is recognized for his hearty laughter and huge grin, and has played both villain and good guy with great success. You may have seen him with other well known actors such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Steven Seagal.
Jana Mashonee is a novelist, actress, musician and philanthropist who created the Jana’s Kids Foundation, which focuses on helping the youths of Native America achieve their goals and dreams through scholarships and programs. She gained the title of “Woman of the Year” for her philanthropical activities.
The list of talented Native American individuals is a long one indeed, and many who have gained recognition have used their fame to better their Native American culture in positive ways. It’s definitely worth doing some investigating if you are drawn to this culture as I have been.