12 Best Native American Actors
As the classic rock tune goes, the American dream includes Indians too
American Indians have been acting in movies since the early 1900s, making mostly cowboys and Indians movies, though they’ve shown up in countless dramas, comedies, adventures, and war films. They’ve appeared in many TV shows and theatrical productions as well, of course. Generally they’ve played that Indian man or woman, not just "average" people, and often in a stereotypical fashion that could be considered humorous or offensive, especially to Native Americans.
The reader should keep in mind this list only contains actors whose ancestry is at least one-quarter to 50 percent American Indian; that is, the native people arising in the vast lands of the United States and Canada.
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1. Jack Hoxie
Jack Hoxie is the only actor on this list born before 1900—1885 to be exact. Incidentally, Hoxie’s mother was half-Nez Perce Indian. Born in Oklahoma, once known as Indian territory, Hoxie became a ranch hand and cowboy, who eventually competed in rodeos. Then, in 1909, Hoxie got his break in show business by joining Dick Stanley’s Wild West show. Hoxie soon graduated to acting in movies, mostly Western shorts, but by the 1920s he could be seen in full-length motion pictures, including 1923’s Where Is the West? Incidentally, Hoxie often acted in films including other Western stars - Hoot Gibson, Harry Carey, and others. Hoxie stopped making movies in the early 1930s but continued working in rodeos, Wild West shows and circuses until the late 1950s.
2. Jay Silverheels
Mostly known as Tonto on the Lone Ranger, a 1950s half-hour Western TV show, Jay Silverheels was a Mohawk Canadian Indian who excelled at being an actor and athlete. Born on the Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario, Canada, Silverheels began acting in 1937, working as an extra and stunt man; his first movie was Make a Wish, a musical comedy. The list of movies in which he acted is very impressive and comprises 79 movies from 1937 to 1973. Silverheels also appeared on many TV shows. Along with 217 episodes of the Lone Ranger (he had starring roles in two movie sequels), he had parts in many other “oaters”: Wanted Dead or Alive, Wagon Train, Rawhide, Laramie, Daniel Boone, Branded, The Virginian, and more. Interestingly, Silverheels parodied his Tonto character a number of times on various TV shows.
3. Ned Romero
Ned Romero started his show business career as an opera singer; he also appeared in musicals such as Kiss Me Kate and Oklahoma! Romero's ancestry is Chitimacha Native American, French, and Spanish. He began his movie and television career in the early 1960s. In fact, he appeared as an opera singer on the popular TV show The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Moreover, Romero has acted in many movies, notably Mark of the Gun (1969) and Winchester 73 (1967). But his greatest claim to fame in the acting realm has been his seemingly countless appearances on TV shows such as The Virginian, Laredo, Bonanza, Star Trek, Disney’s Wonderful World, Murder, She Wrote, Star Trek Voyager and Walker, Texas Ranger, among many others.
4. Graham Greene
An Oneida Native American, Graham Greene was born on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, Canada. Greene began his acting career working in stage plays in England and Toronto in the early 1970s. His TV debut took place on an episode of The Great Detective (1979). His film career took off in the early 1980s with the release of Running Brave (1983). Greene’s filmography is truly impressive. He appeared as Walter Crow Horse in Thunderheart (1992), Kicking Bird in Dances with Wolves (1990) and Detective Joe Lambert in Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995). Greene has also portrayed numerous American Indians of historical note, including Sitting Bull in a Historica vignette; Shawnee chief Tecumseh in Tecumseh!; and Ishi of the Yahi (a small tribe of California Indians) in HBO’s The Last of His Tribe. Interestingly, Greene became a Member of the Order of Canada in 2015.
5. Ben Johnson
Ben Johnson was born on the Osage Indian Reservation in Oklahoma. Johnson’s mother was Cherokee, while his father was Irish. During Johnson’s youth, he became a championship rodeo performer, who soon advanced to stunt work and acting in movies during the late 1930s. The film, The Outlaw, showed his first acting work in 1943. Although, curiously, Johnson’s acting included little or no work portraying American Indians - Johnson, tall, strong, good-looking and laconic - eventually became Hollywood’s quintessential Western character actor. He acted in many Westerns including the legendary John Wayne and starred in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), often considered one of the greatest Westerns of all time. But Johnson also acted in his share of contemporary dramas. He won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1971 for his work in The Last Picture Show.
6. Wes Studi
Considered a full-blooded Native American of the Cherokee Nation, West Studi fought in the Vietnam War and then, in 1973, participated in the Wounded Knee Incident at the Pine Ridge Reservation. Speaking fluent Cherokee, Studi has taught the language and helped start a Cherokee-language newspaper. Amusingly, in the late 1980s, Studi turned to acting - to meet women, of all reasons. Studi soon acted in some of the best films about Native Americans – Dances with Wolves (1990), The Last of the Mohicans (1992), and he played Geronimo in Geronimo: An American Legend (1993). Certainly having the look of a fierce Indian warrior, Studi also appeared as a chieftain in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009). He also starred in Hostiles (2017), by playing Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk. To conclude, Studi was inducted into the Hall of the Great Western Performers by winning a Western Heritage Award in 2013.
7. Irene Bedard
Irene Bedard was born in Anchorage, Alaska, her ancestry including Native Indian groups or tribes such as the Inupiat, Métis, Yupik and Cree. In the late 1990s, Bedard began acting in television and movies. She played the role of Mary Crow Dog in the TV production, Lakota Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee (1994), receiving a nomination for a Golden Globe Award. Then, in perhaps her most popular role to date, Bedard provided the voice in Disney’s animated movie Pocahontas in 1995 (she was also the physical model for the character). Moreover, Bedard has won numerous awards for her acting and the list of films in which she’s appeared is a long one, including such notable motion pictures as The Outer Limits (2001), Into the West (2005), and The Spectacular Spider-Man (2008).
8. Chief Dan George
Chief Dan George was actually a chief of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation in British Columbia, Canada from 1951 to 1963. Also an author and poet, George achieved his first acting job at the age of 60, appearing in the Canadian TV show, Caribou Country. But George’s acting career didn’t peak until 1970 when he starred in Little Big Man, a role for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Another great role for George was the part of Lone Watie in The Outlaw Josie Wales (1976), often considered one of the best American Westerns. And George’s performance in this American classic could be considered Oscar-worthy as well. George also appeared on TV shows such as Kung Fu. During George’s writing career, he was credited with fostering understanding between non-native and Native Americans, particularly with the release of his book, My Heart Soars.
9. Will Sampson
Will Sampson was a Muskogee Creek American Indian born in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. Before Sampson became an actor, he competed in rodeos for about 20 years. His best event was riding bucking broncos. Interestingly, while on the rodeo circuit, film producers discovered Sampson when looking for a large Native American man to play a major supporting role in the movie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). Even though Sampson had never acted, he got the part of Chief Bromden. Moreover, Sampson appeared in many other movies and TV shows. He also appeared in a stage production of Black Elk Speaks. Sampson was a painter of note as well, producing a depiction of the Ribbon Dance of his Muskogee people, which can be seen in the Creek Council House Museum in Okmulgee, Oklahoma.
10. Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman
Also known as Kanghi Duta, Floyd Westerman was a Sioux Native American born on the Lake Traverse Indian Reservation in South Dakota. When growing up, Westerman had to cut his long, braided hair and was forbidden to speak his native language. After graduating from college and serving for two years in the Marines, Westerman began a successful career as a country-western singer. It wasn’t until 1989 that Westerman began acting in films; his first movie was Renegades. Thereafter, Westerman acted in many movies, particularly Dances with Wolves (1990), The Doors (1991) and Tillamook Treasure (2006). He also appeared on numerous TV shows, namely Northern Exposure, L.A. Law, MacGyver and The X-Files.
11. Michael Greyeyes
A Plains Cree Indian from Saskatchewan, Canada, Michael Greyeyes is a multi-talented man who graduated with a master’s degree from the Theatre of Fine Arts and Dance at Kent State University in 2003; he also graduated from the National Ballet School in 1984. He’s performed ballet and other dancing in theatrical productions and worked as a choreographer and artistic director. Greyeyes began his acting career in 1993, when he appeared in TNT’s Geronimo, and since then he’s acted in scores of other TV shows and mini-series, most of which Westerns of some kind. In 1996, he played Crazy Horse in Crazy Horse, a TV biopic film about the famous Oglala Lakota war chief. Also, notably, Greyeyes played the part of Sitting Bull in Woman Walks Ahead in 2017.
12. Russell Means
Russell Means was an Oglala Lakota Native American born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. As a child, Means was given the name “Brave Eagle” and he moved a lot, from city to city and reservation to reservation. This disruption, Means said, led to a life of crime and drug use. Means didn’t turn his life around until he joined the American Indian Movement and was a major participant in the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973. Indicative of Means' point of view, he considered Columbus Day to be a celebration of genocide. Means remained a Native American activist for the rest of his life, at times running afoul of the police and/or government agents. Over Means’ life, he was shot three times, stabbed once and bombed by aircraft, sustaining a shrapnel injury. He also wrote a controversial autobiography entitled, Where White Men Fear to Tread, published in 1995.
But Means eventually found time to become a superb actor, appearing in many movies and TV shows. His first acting job was in The Last of the Mohicans (1992). Interestingly, Means wrote in his book that he was grateful for having the chance to become an actor. Nevertheless, he thought American films generally portrayed Indians in a stilted, negative way.
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© 2015 Kelley Marks