Jeremiah Bitsui played a convincing bad guy on TV but that’s just a credit to a lifetime of perfecting his craft.
A member of the Navajo and Omaha Tribes, Bitsui played Victor, a drug kingpin’s henchman, in the television series Breaking Bad. In real life, he acts, owns a business and reveres his Christian and Tribal culture and those of other Tribes, including the Seminoles.
“I was raised in a Christian household but with Native traditions,” said Bitsui, who lives in Los Angeles and New Mexico. “You can know your culture, but your faith is a different thing. I see the value of culture and language, but faith is universal.”
Bitsui said his faith helped him through the highs and lows of his professions.
Born in Arizona and raised on the Navajo Reservation and in Albuquerque, Bitsui was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a professional rodeo rider. He loved rodeo, but Bitsui is allergic to hay. Instead, to occupy himself, he watched movies. At 5 he landed his first role in a Japanese children’s movie, Mickey’s House, and by 13, he was cast in the cult classic film Natural Born Killers.
Bitsui wanted to attend film school at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) but didn’t get accepted into the program. On the same day he received the rejection letter, he went to a movie screening at UCLA.
The film’s director, Christopher Nolan, spoke afterward.
“I was inspired by him,” Bitsui said. “He told us if you want to work in film, you don’t necessarily have to go to film school; he didn’t. Knowing that motivated me to continue.”
Shortly after, Bitsui started getting roles.
“I realize inspiration is great, but at the same time you have to work at it,” he said. “When I speak to young people I tell them they have to want to do the work. It takes discipline.”
He met success at the start of his acting career, but Bitsui struggled after graduating from Santa Monica College. He left Los Angeles to return to the Navajo Reservation where he spent the summer living at his grandparents’ ranch herding sheep and learning the Navajo language. With no Internet access or cell phone reception, the reservation felt like a safe haven, Bitsui said.
“I was searching for a cultural identity and prayed to God to help me know where to go,” he said. “I felt broken. Since I didn’t speak fluent Navajo, the rez was lonely. But I got to spend time with my grandparents and communicated on a different level with them; they didn’t speak English so I learned Navajo through their Bible and my English one. It was a great experience.”
Bitsui rebuilt a traditional sweat lodge for his family and found the tree where his parents buried his umbilical cord. A Navajo tradition, parents bury their newborn’s placenta and umbilical cord at a special site that represents their dreams for the child. Bitsui would soon understand the symbolism.
When he returned to Albuquerque, he had messages waiting for him, including an offer for a role in A Thousand Roads. Ironically, the character in the film was a troubled young man who herded sheep on an Indian reservation. He got the role and the film now plays regularly at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. and New York.
His career took off with roles in Lords of Dogtown and Flags of Our Fathers and later in Breaking Bad.
But Bitsui does more than act; he is also an entrepreneur because he wants his life to have a purpose beyond acting. At 19, he started a consulting business through the Workforce Investment Act and provided services, training, communications and developmental skills to inner city and Native American youth. When funding for the program ended, he started a business promoting nightclubs in Los Angeles but the long hours didn’t suit him, he said.
He returned to what he knows best.
“My dad’s a general contractor (after retiring from the rodeo); my uncles are electricians and tradesmen. They’re all union guys,” Bitsui said. “I indirectly grew up in that industry; it’s a business that has always been very familiar to me.”
He started a project management company, Bitco, and is a general contractor in New Mexico, Arizona and California. He wants to pursue business in New York and possibly with the Seminole Tribe.
Bitsui met members of the Seminole Tribe through mutual friends at economic development and gaming conferences. Last year, he spent Labor Day weekend on the Hollywood and Big Cypress Reservations, which made a lasting impression on him.
“I feel like family with the relationships we built,” said Bitsui of Christine Nevaquaya and Ethel Huggins. “It’s been really good getting to know the community.”
At the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas in September, he again spent time with Seminoles posing for photos and signing autographs for fans at the Tribe’s electronic cigarette booth.
“I’m impressed with the Tribe; they are inspiring to all nations,” he said. “To own a global brand and participate in international business while keeping the values you hold dear that your forefathers built; I’d love to do the same thing for my nation.”
Bitsui wants to debunk common perceptions that Native Americans are victims and wants to contend with the best, he said.
“I don’t compete as a Native American actor – I compete against every actor,” he said. “My grandfather said it best before I went to college: ‘Don’t join the Indian club. I want you to socialize with everyone else and just get good at whatever you are doing. Don’t be the best Indian guy, just be the best.’”
He believes everything is a learning process.
“If I would have changed one thing, it could have affected everything else,” Bitsui said. “The mistakes you make are as much of an education as the success. Trust your instincts and values and take it from there.”