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Wes Studi becomes first Native American to receive Academy Award

There’s no doubt the movie business has often had a questionable past with how Native Americans are portrayed in film, but there was no question to the Hollywood honor bestowed to Wes Studi for the quality of his work as a Native American actor.

Studi (Cherokee) became the first Native American to receive an Academy Award on Oct. 27 when he was presented with an “Honorary Oscar” at the Governors Awards in a star-studded Ray Dolby Ballroom in Hollywood, California.

“I’m really proud to be here tonight as the first Indigenous Native American to receive an Academy Award,” Studi told the audience, later adding that, “It’s a total and humbling honor to receive an award for doing something I love to do.”

The Governors Awards is an annual event celebrating awards conferred by the Academy’s Board of Governors.

The awards include the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award and the Honorary Award.

The Honorary Award is given for “lifetime achievements, exceptional contributions to motion picture arts and sciences, and outstanding service to the Academy,” according to the Academy’s website.

Previous Honorary Award recipients include Gene Kelly, Harold Lloyd, Bob Hope, Greta Garbo, Gary Cooper, Stan Laurel, Cary Grant, Orson Welles, Edward G. Robinson, James Stewart, Paul Newman, Sophia Loren, Sidney Poitier, Robert Redford, Lauren Bacall, James Earl Jones and others.

Wes Studi gives his acceptance speech after receiving an Honorary Oscar on Oct. 27 at the Governors Awards in Hollywood, California. Looking on, from right, are U.S Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, and actors Christian Bale and Q’orianka Kilcher. (Photo A.M.P.A.S.)

Christian Bale, who worked with Studi in “Hostiles,” presented the award.

“It’s clear that Wes is in possession of a brilliant mind and prodigious talent, but more importantly as an artist he has had a profound influence on the perception of his people,” Bale said. “When we think of Native Americans in film, his are some of the most distinctive performances that we all remember.”

Indeed. Studi has appeared in major motion pictures such as “Dances with Wolves,” “The Last of the Mohicans,” and “Heat.”

He’s shared the screen with some of giants in the business, such as Bale, Bradley Cooper, Kevin Costner, Daniel Day-Lewis, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell, Gene Hackman and Al Pacino.

Studi’s most recent film, “Badland,” a Western with Kevin Makely, Mira Sorvino, Bruce Dern and Trace Adkins, opened Nov. 1.

Bale said Studi’s face tells a lot about the man.

“When I think about Wes, I think ‘My God, what a face. That face that is etched with history, with experience, character, dignity, every emotion under the sun; that face that tells so many stories all at once,” Bale said.

Wes Studi celebrates with his Oscar. (Photo A.M.P.A.S.)

Bale also said Studi takes Native language seriously, even serving as a language consultant for “Avatar,” in which he also appeared.

“He is passionate about the preservation of Native languages and communities. He serves as spokesman for both the Indigenous Language Institute and the Partnership with Native Americans,” Bale said.

Studi, a youthful-looking 71, thanked the actors, directors and writers he’s worked with throughout his career as well as everyone else who has had a hand in his films.

He also thanked his parents, children, wife of 30-plus years Maura and his fans.

“A big shout out to the fans and followers on social media and the moviegoers that make all this possible for us,” he said.

Studi also singled out directors Georgina Lightning (First Nations) and Chris Eyre (Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes) for their films that he was a part of,

“Older than America” and “Edge of America,” respectively.

In addition to Bale, U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo (Muscogee Creek)) and actress Q’Orianka Kilcher praised Studi as an actor and a person during the ceremony.

Harjo read a lengthy list of roles Studi has played, including warrior, toughest Pawnee, sheriff, girl-crazy stud, detective, hijacker, trainer of superheroes, bingo caller, foreman, priest, auto mechanic, medicine man, bounty hunter, werewolf and others.

Governors Awards recepients Geena Davis, Lina Wertmüller, David Lynch, and Wes Studi gather for photos at the 2019 Governors Awards in Ray Dolby Ballroom on Oct. 27. (Photo A.M.P.A.S.)

Away from the camera, Kilcher recalled the first time she met Studi.

She was 14 and starred with him in “The New World.” She said she has come to know Studi as “one of the kindest, most generous humans on this planet.”

Studi’s impact is destined to resonate for Native and non-Native generations to come.

“Over the years,” Kilcher said, “Wes has really revolutionized how Indigenous People are portrayed in cinema.”

Before presenting the Oscar to Studi, Bale urged the industry to open more doors to Native Americans.

“Too few opportunities in film – on both sides of the camera – have gone to Native or Indigenous artists,” he said. “We’re a room full of people who can change that; it is imperative that we do.”

Kevin Johnson
Kevin Johnson is senior editor. He has worked for The Seminole Tribune since 2014. He was previously an editor, photographer and reporter for newspapers in Southwest Florida and Connecticut. Contact Kevin at