Starring: Native American Actors
Updated June 23, 2011 — Acting is a difficult enough profession. Just ask anybody trying to break into the business here in the home of Hollywood. When you are part of a minority group, it’s even harder. And if your minority status happens to have the title Native American, you have a special set of hurdles.
It isn’t necessarily that Native American roles don’t exist in Hollywood: Indians were characters in even the earliest Hollywood movies, and they have figured in more than 4,000 of them, according to Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond. But those depictions were inaccurate at best, and producers often hired non-Native actors to portray them, missing out on the chance to tell a better, more faceted cinematic story, said DeLanna Studi, an actor and member of the Cherokee Nation.
Which has led to the current problem these actors face: being frozen in a misleading stereotype that belongs mostly to the past.
“What people don’t realize is that most of the parts our actors get are period pieces,” Studi said. “They often think of us as relic of the past. But we are a thriving people today. We are contemporary, modern, and succeeding.”
Enter the Screen Actors’ Guild, which in 2007 set up the President’s National Task Force for American Indians, to improve the quality and quantity of roles for Native Americans in mainstream productions.
Studi, who chairs the task force, said similar efforts had been launched in the past 30 years, but they never really achieved much.
This task force has, among other things, produced a video, American Indian Actors, which premiered on Nov. 20, 2010 at the Museum of Tolerance in West Los Angeles, ahead of screenwriter and director Neil Diamond’s documentary Reel Injun: On the Trail of the Hollywood Indian. The screenings are free, but RSVPs are requested at SAGdiversity@sag.org. Both films screen again at 7 p.m. tonight at the Autry’s Well’s Fargo Theater. Admission is free.
The 8-minute video is a compilation of interviews with Native American actors who examine the movie world from the inside, describing obstacles and attitudes they face daily. It first targets the industry: producers, directors, casting agents, and writers who are the first to choose who their characters are and who portrays them. But Studi believes the larger public also needs to change its thinking about Native Americans.
“Unfortunately right now, when Hollywood thinks of minority actors, they think of performance disabilities, they think of African Americans, they think of Asian Americans,” Studi said. “We’re hoping this video will get our actors some work, or at least it can get them in the room so they can audition for contemporary roles.”
Part of the problem for Native Americans in show business is about numbers. Studi says they make up less than one-half of a percent of the hiring in the entertainment industry. That makes it necessary for Native American activists to ally themselves with other groups to be heard.
Elena Finney, who is Mescalero Apache and worked with Studi on the SAG effort, said the task force took as its inspiration I am PWD, a campaign launched two years ago by the three performing arts unions (SAG/AFTRA/AEA) to promote inclusion of actors with disabilities in movie and television productions. That committee also produced a video, and Finney says it has made a notable impact on hiring of these actors.
“They have made wonderful strides,” she said. “It’s a really great campaign and it has been really inspiring to us.”
The video presentation and documentary last November were part of the 2010 LA SkinsFest, a showcase of Native American cinema and music that spanned several venues across the city. The closing event, the following Sunday at the Autry, featured a screening of Return of the Country, by veteran filmmaker and activist Bob Hicks (Oklahoma Creek), who discussed the film, his career, and the state of Native American affairs today. It also featured Crazy Ind’n 3, the animated satire of homeland reclamation by Ian Skorodin, the Choctaw filmmaker who also produces the LA SkinsFest.
“A lot of what Indian actors want most is to be portrayed like normal people,” Skorodin said. “I think the important thing now is that we want to be part of the mainstream.”