Editors’ Note: The casting of non-Native Americans to play Native American characters has its roots in the earliest days of cinema. Though rarer today, it is not unheard of. Adam Beach, who made his breakthrough opposite Nicolas Cage starred in John Woo’s Windtalkers, was nominated for a Golden Globe for his role in Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, and more recently was part of the Suicide Squad ensemble, argues in this open letter to the industry that to play the role of a Native American, actors should be able to prove they are Native American. Otherwise, he says, they’re just part of Hollywood’s long history of “whitewashing.” Family lore and the belief that one is distantly part-Cherokee, is not enough, he feels.
In Hollywood, amongst my friends, I’m known as “The Indian.” I always dreamed of being an actor in Hollywood, but my biggest dream was meeting Alyssa Milano and the day that dream came true played out like this: Alyssa was dating a friend of mine in Los Angeles, and when he introduced me to her, he said, “Alyssa, this is who I was telling you about… this is the Indian.” They don’t mean disrespect in any way. My friends have always said they have never met a Native American before, let alone having one as a friend. I am not offended in any way, because I carry my teachings and cultural values as a member of the Anishinaabe Nation. We as friends teach each other our experiences to be better human beings. This is the purpose of this letter. No anger, only truth and my lived experience.
For the past 200 years, Native peoples have been forced to assimilate. Native spiritual practices were outlawed. Those Natives who continued to practice ceremony were jailed, and even killed. Native children were taken away from their families and placed in residential and boarding schools. Their hair was shorn, they were given European names, and they were made to wear western clothes. Native children were beaten for speaking their own Native languages and abuse was rampant. Children were not allowed to see their families, and some did not survive the beatings or harsh living conditions of these horrific places. These tragic events continued to play out well into the 1970s. Many Native communities are still plagued by problems that stem directly from the historical trauma caused by the theft of tribal lands and resources as well as forced assimilation.
Natives have been fighting for centuries to preserve our lands and cultures and we are still working to reclaim our identities. Our identity is our birthright.
There is no need to cast non-Native performers and actresses in Native roles. This is not 1950. The practice of whitewashing is unnecessary, unacceptable and discriminatory. It promotes the erasure of communities of color. Natives are often typecast in stereotypical roles or removed from the narrative entirely.
Sonny Skyhawk (Sicangu Lakota), who formed American Indians in Film and Television, states, “We have a caliber of acting chops that should be utilized.” There are many talented and capable Native performers to fill Native roles and actual Native people are the only ones who should. My colleague, acclaimed director Chris Eyre (Cheyenne and Arapaho) states, “As Native American artists we have come too far to accept cultural backsliding.” Mr. Eyre consults on history and contemporary appropriation of Native culture through www.thenativenetworkers.com
Being Native is more than claiming your great-great-grandmother was a Cherokee princess, or that people have told you that you look Native because you have high cheekbones. It’s more than a last-minute bullet point on your resume or Wikipedia page to qualify you for a role you wouldn’t otherwise receive. Incidentally, claiming Native ancestry without proof makes one a fraud.
Even if we overlook tribal enrollment or the Indian status cards that legally identify one as Native in the United States and Canada, there are other markers of Native identity, like kinship and community bonds. One is Native their entire life. It is a not a costume that we can remove. These are some of the topics that my wife (Summer Tiger) and I speak about on a daily basis. Only a Native knows what it is to be Native, because they have the life experience to show it, in all its nuanced complexities. Summer, who is an enrolled member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida and holds a master’s degree in clinical psychology, states, “The perpetuation of historical trauma that has been handed down generation to generation is resulting in disproportionate rates of youth suicides, alcoholism, and drug abuse on reservations. Hollywood profits off of telling our stories, using us as backdrops in their white savior narratives, sending the message to our people that we are disposable. The least Hollywood could do is cast Natives who are actually connected to their tribe.”
When I was selected by John Woo to play the lead in the movie Windtalkers alongside Nicolas Cage, my Hollywood dreams became a reality. I was now with the big boys. However, with the respect I have for our Native peoples I put my integrity before my career and told my manager that the studio had to get permission from the Navajo Nation for me to be hired to play the role of a Code Talker. Everyone thought I was crazy to put my career on the line, but this is who I am. My next phone call was from my manager saying that the Navajo Nation has approved, with one condition: that the studio hire an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation to play the other Code Talker in the film. Roger Willie was hired to play my friend. He taught me so much about the history of the Navajo people, which I still hold in my heart to this very day.
“There are many Native stories that are not being told. We are so much more than stories of poverty, or hapless victims who must be rescued by a white savior,” states Ruth Hopkins (Dakota/Lakota), a tribal attorney, activist and Native writer. Audiences are being robbed by false representation of Native identity and the chance to bear witness to our truth.
My friend Delanna Studi, a documented citizen of the Cherokee Nation, and chair of the SAG-AFTRA National Native Americans Committee, states, “I am all too familiar with the roles that are being written for our people, especially our women. All too often we are portrayed as princesses or victims adding to the ‘othering’ of and dehumanizing of our Native women. In truth, many of our tribal nations are matrilineal and our women hold power and stature.”
It is troubling to see roles meant for Native women being given to those who are not Native, especially when that character is the victim of violence. One in three Native women are survivors of sexual assault, and while it hasn’t been publicized until recently, there is an epidemic of missing and murdered Native women on this continent. Just a few weeks ago, a young Native woman in North Dakota who was eight months pregnant went missing and her remains were later discovered in a nearby river. Her child had been ripped from her womb and taken by her alleged killers. Her story is not uncommon. Right now there are thousands of missing Native women and others whose murder cases remain unsolved. Not selecting a Native woman to embody the bravery of these women is a disgrace. This particular story reminds me of my mother Sally, who was killed by a drunk driver in front of my house. She died in a ditch and was eight months pregnant with a baby girl, who also died. I was 8 years old.
These emotions I carry inform the opinions I have and the statements I make on Indians in Hollywood. We are tired of others telling us who we are. We know who we are and what we look like as Native people. After all we’ve overcome, being able to represent ourselves is not too much to ask.
“All has become beautiful again”