Actor Wes Studi is one of the most prolific and widely acclaimed American Indian actors in history. Studi, a member of the Cherokee Nation, is instantly recognizable from his roles in blockbuster movies such as Dances with Wolves, Last of the Mohicans and his Western Heritage Award-winning portrayal of Geronimo in Geronimo: An American Legend. What is perhaps less well-known about Studi is his long history of addressing important issues that face the American Indian community. And for Studi, many of the issues currently facing American Indians can be traced to a historic fight for sovereignty that have disrupted the development of the American Indians.
Studi traces the issues facing American Indians today to the original colonization of American Indian tribes. He told me, “So many of the tribes had structures that didn’t call for one main leader, like a president. It really mattered how well they knew a subject or how well they dealt with something. My particular tribe (Cherokee) had war chiefs and they had peace chiefs. And whoever was best at maintaining and affording peace among the people was usually the one that was picked to do it. And those that agreed followed, and those that didn’t, didn’t follow. And those who were very good at war, well, the cream rises to the top. And that is in itself a personal sovereignty that we enjoyed up until the colonial period.”
But according to Studi, this changed when European settlers began to colonize tribal land. He says, “We as Indian tribes had to adjust to this new reality that proved to be a case of arrested development on our part in that we had to stop our development at that point and deal with this new factor in our lives. And we made it a part of our lives one way or another. And while we had always maintained our political sovereignty because we as a group had our own language, we were a racial, political group, the individual sovereignty is part of the larger political sovereignty we have developed through the political system where we as Cherokees adopted use of the Constitution and the western European concept of democracy -- that was actually born here if you asked me.”
Being forced to alter their form of government in order to address the threat of European colonialism was harmful because it broke down the existing communal structure of the tribes. Studi said, “In the southern part of the states our efforts rewarded us as Cherokee peoples but it also enticed our sovereignty and our property and our world as something to be achieved by others. And because of the fact that gold was discovered on our land it made it possible for the state of Georgia and the United States government to get rid of us which they ultimately did even with the Supreme Court having ruled on our side, having brought about the Trail of Tears. The political sovereignty, we were able to take it west and build again. And pretty much the same thing happened there in what is now the state of Oklahoma. We began to build and again to our own detriment we built it well enough that those who didn’t have what we had wanted what we had. There became a belief that we should no longer be a separate entity and that we should be taken over like the state of Oklahoma.”
Studi feels that this ongoing need to fight for sovereignty continues to undermine the development of American Indian peoples. He says, “Our own development had been arrested and left us forever in a conflict to protect our own interests against not only states, counties and cities, but from the very federal government who is charged with protecting our interests. And as we began to build our idea of a sovereign nation we did so to our own demise.”
For Studi, his awareness of the effects of colonization became more acute after his experience as a United States soldier serving in Vietnam; Studi joined the U.S. Army and served one tour in South Vietnam with the 9th Infantry Division in the Mekong Delta.
He says: “For me it was coming home from the Vietnam War and seeing a troubled nation grappling with itself. I’ve been in the army and I don’t think it has changed, what happens when you invade and colonize a people overtly or covertly. You have to go in and tear down the social structures. You have to go ahead and dehumanize the people who are there to change them to the way that you live life. That’s what’s damaging to the individuals in those groups, when they are converted to all of the beliefs that are held in esteem by the conquering nations, if you will, in order to replace the belief system of the people who are being invaded or colonized. The first step is to dehumanize their way of thinking in order to bring them around to yours. And that is what’s been damaging to the larger part of American Indians in the states and it’s still relevant.”
Studi did not stop at words; he became motivated to take action. He joined the American Indian Movement (AIM) and participated in the Trail of Broken Treaties protest march in 1972, where hundreds of Native American activists marched on Washington. He was one of the protesters who briefly occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs Building there. In 1973, Studi participated in the occupation at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, for which he was arrested. He said, “Over the years of oppressed poverty that we lived in from the mid 1800s to the mid 1900s we just had pretty much accepted our fate being a poor oppressed minority that couldn’t do anything for itself. But there was now the opportunity for me to meet people who were going to college and learning a lot more. Indian studies didn’t exist at that time but with the efforts of many it was created at universities. And Indian law became a big deal back then. And more and more research was being done with people being interested in what the real deal was and it was like the second coming of sovereignty for us. It’s like we had it all that time, but we didn’t really know it. We didn’t know that we had the right to re-maintain our sovereignty. And I think that happened as a process of our rediscovering our own individual sovereignty expanded into our political sovereignty.”
For Studi, the dehumanization associated with colonialism is reflected in the current controversy regarding American Indian team names and logos in sports. The report from the National Congress of the American Indian describes how the fight against racism toward American Indians in sports began in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Studi describes, “The initial onslaught goes on to this day even in things like the mascot issue, which is a way of belittling American Indians. Years ago many of us accepted the trivialization. And then it was pointed out to us yes this is a trivialization because we as Indians came to who we were only the late 60s and early 70s with all of the political unrest of the AIM movement and everything began. A lot of us were living in that shadow of self doubt and even self-hatred and those tumultuous years taught us a few things. We started to look at history for what it was, and began to figure out that many things were manipulated to the winner’s point of view. Like a battle being called a massacre if we won, and a great battle if they won. I think the mascot issue is a part of all that. Some would say it’s not an important part, there are other issues you should be passionate about or work to get done but they are all one in the same.”
Most American Indian organizations have denounced the use of American Indian team names and logos, particularly the Washington football team which adopts a dictionary-defined racial slur (R*dskins) as its name. Professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association, the American Sociological Association, and the American Counseling Association have all recommended the immediate cessation of all American Indian team names and logos for sports teams because of the devastating effects of this practice on self-concept and development. And experimental laboratory studies demonstrate that American Indian team names and logos result directly in lower self-esteem and lower mood among American Indians.
These conclusions are consistent with Studi’s view on how racist team names and logos influence self-concept. “We were first called ‘Children of God’ or ‘Children of the Forest’ because we didn’t have what was called sophistication at that time, we weren’t the farmers that used steel or metals. And supposedly we weren’t sophisticated enough to live in our own world, and our world had to be changed, and this was what begins to affect the mind in that I start to think that my beliefs aren’t good enough, so I have to accept someone else’s. My way of living is not right because they tell me so, and I should become like them. It’s like the old idea of ‘Kill the Indian, Save the Man.’ Our self-concept was extremely uprooted and turmoil created to the point where we feel worthless. We are not as good as you are unless we can attain what you value in your society.”
For Studi, this raised awareness regarding the importance of sovereignty is also seen in the current fight by groups such as Idle No More to help protect First Nations and American Indian lands from environmental destruction. This issue has become so contentious that some American Indian tribes are calling the violation of tribal sovereignty by projects such as the Keystone XL project an “act of war.” Studi describes how American Indians viewed their relationship with the earth: “It’s the idea that the land belongs to no one. We were created to take care of, steward the land. That is mankind’s purpose on earth, to steward and take care of the land as it feeds off of it. That was our way of life; we serve Mother Earth in our own best interest. But then the idea came along from the Europeans that we weren’t ‘using’ the land for anything, we should go in and use it like we know how to and just push them out of the way because they had no regard for how we lived. And they brought over all of their methods and how to create another Europe. And because that was part of our belief system, when somebody else took over and began to use it in a different way it’s like we failed our creative mandate. But because we were replaced by another governing power we feel like failures, so we are ashamed that we can’t make our views a part of the process of life itself in how we treat the environment.”
Studi also feels that the disconnection from the original mission to live harmoniously with the land, as well as the resulting loss of identity arising from this disconnect has contributed to health problems among American Indians. American Indian and Alaska Native adults are twice as likely to have diagnosed diabetes as non-Hispanic whites, and American Indian youth are developing type 2 diabetes at higher rates than youth in other racial and ethnic groups of the same age. Studi famously participated in a popular public service announcement that encouraged a return to pride in traditional practices such as local, organic whole foods and physical activity. He said: “It’s all interrelated in terms of the types of foods that we eat and how things change over time, the change in diet that we’ve had over the years. Most of the time these days we’re not physically active.”
Further, this issue of sovereignty becomes prominent in how to enforce justice on tribal lands. A U.S. Department of Justice report showed that Native American women have the highest rates of sexual assault in the country with one in three women experiencing assault during their lifetime. Further, in 70% of cases the perpetrator is not Native American. A recent report suggests that part of this issue is the limited power tribes have to prosecute non-American Indians for crimes committed on tribal lands. Studi says, “We as Indian tribes should be able to prosecute non-Indians on tribal lands. But on Indian land we have no ability to prosecute anyone but another Indian. American Indians having status as a foreign nation is good for us but it’s not good in some ways if we don’t have the jurisdictional power that the federal government claims.”
Studi is ultimately optimistic and has taken many steps to remedy the issues he sees. At one point Studi moved to Oklahoma where he worked for the Cherokee Nation, and helped start the Cherokee Phoenix, a bilingual newspaper still in publication today. During that time Studi put his linguistic skills to work and began teaching the Cherokee language in the community.
And in his own work, he has recognized how much American Indians are stereotyped in television and film, but has been able to use those opportunities to further his agenda. “What we’re up against is types and time. We’re usually relegated to the past. The best way to use an Indian is in a Western. So you hardly get any contemporary stories about Indians. The idea of what I call ‘feathers and leathers’ is a two-edged sword in that it’s something that gave me a start in the business. If you are someone who ‘looks like an Indian’ that’s the best way to get a leg up is to play a stereotyped Indian. But maybe you can use that role to bring something else out other than what’s stereotyped.”
Studi feels that he has been able to explore those complex themes in his characters. He said, “I feel very fortunate that I was able to be cast in roles that showed the humanity if you will of usually stereotypical Indian characters that made up a lot of film, like the Pawnee in Dances with Wolves. He has the opportunity to show that Indians were fighting Indians at the same time that they were fighting White people. And his only response to that was to destroy as much as possible to each and every one. He wasn’t just fighting the Sioux; he was fighting the soldiers as well. It portrayed a desperate person in a desperate situation. Then we went to Last of the Mohicans where we saw a Magua character that was equally troubled and equally traumatized by everything that had been happening in his life and was reacting in the way that anyone can understand why he would do this. Why he would want revenge, why he would go through so much trouble to accomplish his mission if you will, even if it’s leading to his own end. It humanized Native Americans. While the other characters in Dances with Wolves we got a chance to see them in a more domestic situation. And until that time we had never seen the Indian camp if you will to see that what went on didn’t have anything to do with planning attacks or burning people at the stake. Geronimo was a character that was born to war. He lived war. War was his life. That was just the case. They accepted it and that’s what it was.”
Studi recalls one of his characters saying, “I’m going to be the best damn white man I can be.” He says, “It takes pretty dramatic stuff to believe, ‘I wasn’t so bad to begin with. Why do I have to take this guy’s word that I’m not as good as him. We live under the shadow of not being as good. That can’t be good for anyone psychologically can it?”
Studi knows ultimately that the fight for sovereignty will be long and difficult, but has and will continue to be rewarding.
“But during that time of political unrest, we began to learn, we began to do something about it. We thought, yeah maybe we’ll lose a few things because of this, but we will gain more because we will maintain ourselves as people and stop accepting someone else’s definition of us.”
"National sovereignty can only be achieved after self sovereignty".
This article is part of a special series in honor of Native American Heritage Month.
Dr. Mike Friedman is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. His thoughts are his own. Follow Dr. Friedman on Twitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl