Cherokee actor helping tell the story of the West in films

FILE - In this Dec. 18, 2017 file photo, actor Wes Studi attends a special screening of "Hostiles" at Metrograph in New York. The Cherokee-American actor, groundbreaking filmmaker David Lynch and the first woman ever to receive an Academy Award nomination for directing, Lina Wertmüller, will be receiving honorary Oscars at the Governors Awards on Oct. 27, 2019 in Hollywood. The film academy’s board of governors voted on this year’s recipients Saturday, June 1.(Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)

 

OKLAHOMA CITY — Wes Studi has played a cop in the crime thriller "Heat," a superhero trainer in the comedy "Mystery Men" and as the patriarch of an alien tribe, the Na'vi, in the sci-fi epic "Avatar."

Still, the Cherokee actor is best known for his work in Westerns, including the title role in "Geronimo: An American Legend," as a tough Pawnee warrior in "Dances With Wolves" and, more recently, as a dying Cheyenne chief in "Hostiles."

"You take a film like 'Avatar,' which is set off into the future, that's essentially a Western, in terms of the way it's built, the way it's told and the subject matter. It's a Western in outer space," Studi told The Oklahoman with a chuckle.

"The American mythology is of winning the West, and Westerns are made up of that. Americans love Westerns, and I think that's because they're a mythologized development of the world that we live in today. That's mainly what was available in my youth. I came to enjoy the parts of Westerns that made sense to me. As time went on, I began to think of Westerns in a different way due to my Native American part of my being. But Westerns, as far as my career goes, have been a very important part simply because that's the easiest way for a Native American to be cast in any kind of film."

The Oklahoma native, then, is a natural to host HDNET Movies "Summer of Westerns" Sunday film series, which will continue through Aug. 11. The series kicks off with Studi, 71, in his celebrated portrayal of the legendary Apache warrior in 1993's "Geronimo: An American Legend."

A 2003 inductee into the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum's Hall of Great Western Performers, Studi was born in Nofire Hollow, near Tahlequah. He spoke only Cherokee until he was 5, when he was sent to Chilocco Indian School in northern Oklahoma, where he remained until high school graduation. He was drafted into the U.S. Army and served 18 months in South Vietnam with the 9th Infantry Division.

Studi arrested attention at the 90th Academy Awards last year when he spoke Cherokee while introducing a tribute to movies featuring military service members. His comments launched a #WhatDidWesSay hashtag on Twitter, with the Cherokee Nation's Twitter account supplying the answer: "Hello. Appreciation to all veterans and Cherokees who've served. Thank you!"

"It was historical because it had never happened before. You've heard other languages from other places around the world on that stage, and this was the first time Cherokee itself was spoken on the Oscars stage," said Studi, who now lives in New Mexico.

"A lot of people reacted strongly and rejoiced the fact that a Native language was spoken on that stage. It's kind of a recognition of the fact that we're still here, and it's kind of a reminder. I think Native Americans and veterans are overlooked, and unfortunately in the kind of world we live in, perhaps used for whatever is the purpose at the time. To mention the veterans and speak my other language just was a shout-out to the fact that, 'Hey, you're not totally forgotten. You're not totally just a part of the past.' "

A 2014 deadCenter Film Festival ICON Award winner, Studi continues to work steadily, with his name attached to no less than a half-dozen movie projects, including, yes, some Westerns.

"As time has gone on, Westerns have developed to include other parts of the stories, which include Native Americans. And Native Americans have been able to sort of revitalize the Western in that you see a different aspect of what the great mythology was all about. It's become a more true story as time has gone on, and I think it can still continue to develop," he said. "I think the Western can prove to be an important part of our story, the American story, as told through film."

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