Historically, cinema has not provided Indigenous communities with the opportunity to represent themselves in the modern world. From Western films to animated shorts, Native American actors have been mostly limited to stereotypical, inauthentic, and culturally-insensitive roles. Yet, with every year that passes, Native talent is further appreciated; films now have Native directors, television series now have casting directors prioritizing Native actors, and there is a demand for authentic Native content. Cinema is shifting and Indigenous communities are finally experiencing the results of their determination to be recognized.
Native actors such as Chief Dan George, Tantoo Cardinal, and Will Sampson have shaken the industry with their powerful roles, paving the way for Indigenous actors. Today’s Native actors continue to challenge societal limitations and fight for the right to narrate their own stories. Their resolve throughout cinematic history has become a source of encouragement for Indigenous people and a foundation for accurate representation of Native culture and community.
In a virtual panel hosted by Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) on Nov. 17, “Fear the Walking Dead” actor and Blackfeet descendant Kalani Queypo discussed his experience as a child when Native representation was scarce in cinema.
“The majority of the time, they didn’t look like you,” he shared. “You wanted to see yourself in them and you wanted to see yourself on screen.”
Yet, with the release of every film came the reminder that Native roles were scarce and Native talent was unappreciated.
Soon, a shift occurred and Native roles appeared more frequently in cinema.
“Anytime there would be somebody who popped up on-screen, it would be super exciting… You thought, ‘My goodness, they look like my uncle, they look like my mom, my cousin. They look like me,’” Queypo said.
When Indigenous communities are accurately represented on-screen, in literature, in art, and throughout history, new perspectives can emerge in non-Native populations: the understanding that Indigenous communities have always belonged here.
“The one thing that’s worse than being misrepresented is to be invisible… There’s nothing more tragic than feeling like you don’t belong in the country that our ancestors originally walked upon,” Queypo continued.
With this shift in the industry, white-washed roles in cinema are becoming less frequent, and opportunities for Native parts are flourishing.
Today, Native actors take on an additional responsibility, explained by “Chicago Fire” actor Glenn Stanton.
“Suddenly your career is not your career and you…are representing something that is so much more than you…,” he said.
Every Native role on-screen and behind the scenes is a representation of Native communities and a chance to reclaim their stories. Queypo witnessed the increase in Indigenous representation on the set of “Trickster.”
“It’s based on a trilogy of books from an Indigenous writer. We’ve got primarily Indigenous cast, Indigenous show runner and director… Every single department throughout the entire thing…had at least two indigenous people,” Queypo said.
This accomplishment, however, does not mean the battle has ended. Opportunities for Native roles are still vastly outnumbered. Without more modern opportunities, Native actors are restricted to what Cherokee actor DeLanna Studi refers to as “leather and feather” roles. If the only films portraying Native communities are period pieces, then society’s understanding of Indigenous people risks being limited to one perspective.
“That’s why I went back to get a screenwriting degree,” Kimberly Guerrero explained. Guerrero, a Native actor from Oklahoma starring in “The Cherokee Word for Water,” is creating the opportunities Native communities deserve to have available.
“I’m just going to put my time into writing roles for native people,” Guerrero said.
Guerrero is not the only one creating greater opportunities for Native communities; casting director Rene Haynes is known for her active role in casting Native people for Native parts. When discussing Irene Bedard’s role in “Lakota Woman,” Haynes considered it a turning point for indigenous communities.
“It was one of the first portrayals of a Native woman carrying a film and being remarkable,” Haynes stated. Irene Bedard went on to receive a Golden Globe Nomination for her role in the film.
For the first time, stereotypes and misrepresentations are being consistently quelled and replaced with accurate portrayals of Native people, played by Native actors. Native representation in the film industry is experiencing a positive change.
“I think we’re really at a great spot,” Queypo said. “It’s not this pendulum that has swung and…now we’ve got to wait another five years until it becomes a little chic and a little bit trendy to have Native content.”
Native content in cinema is at its most authentic today because it is written, directed, played, and led by Indigenous people.
Amber Midthunder, a Native actor from New Mexico with a role in the FX series “Legion,” hopes the representation of Indigenous people will continue to develop. She aims to represent the history and culture of her native community, as well as their everyday life.
“We walk around, we go to the grocery store, we’re doctors, we’re this thing, we’re that thing… We’re all sorts of regular things also,” Midthunder stated.
Society’s understanding and appreciation for Native communities is slowly shifting as a result of Native actors playing more leading and contemporary roles. After 28 years of acting, Guerrero said she recently took on the first role that did not end in her character’s death.
“I believe it’s just the beginning,” Guerrero said.
At the conclusion of the SAG-AFTRA panel, the speakers shared a hope for more contemporary roles for Native actors, as well as a continued increase in opportunities. The goal to amplify Native voices is not one task, but a progression of numerous actions.
Ari Rioseco is a freelance writer and a Seminole Tribe employee.