Celebrities have always fascinated Kelley, particularly ones who have made the earth a more compassionate, equitable and healthy place.
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. William “Bill” Malcolm Hazlett
William “Bill” Malcolm Hazlett, aka Chief Many Treaties, was a Blackfoot Native American Indian born in Montana in 1874; he was a graduate of Carlisle University. Hazlett acted in many Hollywood Westerns during the 1930s and ‘40s.
He appeared in movies such as Flaming Frontiers (1938), Rustlers of Red Dog (1935), Guilty Trails (1938), The Law Rides Again (1943), The Deerslayer (1943), Outlaw Express (1938) Go West Young Lady (1941), Overland Mail (1942) and Black Bart (1948).
But perhaps the best movie he appeared in was Buffalo Bill (1944), filmed in Technicolor, starring Joel McCrea, Maureen O’Hara and Anthony Quinn.
2. 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.
3. Yakima Canutt
As a teenager, Canutt began working as a rodeo cowboy in Colfax, Washington. In 1912, Canutt, only 17 years old, won the title of World’s Best Bronco Buster. While continuing to win championships for his rodeo prowess, Canutt began working as a stuntman in the 1920s. His first flick was Lightning Bryce (1920).
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By the 1930s Canutt worked as a stuntman for stars such as John Wayne; in fact, Canutt taught Wayne how to walk, talk and act like a cowhand. Canutt’s most famous role as a stuntman was when he doubled for John Wayne in Stagecoach (1939), performing the dangerous stunts used in the scenes in which Apaches attack the stagecoach as it barrels over a dry lake bed, one of the most iconic scenes in American westerns.
Canutt also developed various techniques and devices used to film action scenes in movies, and he also acted in and directed such action-adventure fare in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.
4. 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,” like Wanted Dead or Alive, Wagon Train, Rawhide, Laramie, Daniel Boone, Branded, and The Virginian. Interestingly, Silverheels parodied his Tonto character a number of times on various TV shows.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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 1943 film, The Outlaw, showed his first acting work. Curiously, Johnson’s acting included little or no work portraying American Indians. Maybe because he was tall, strong, good-looking and laconic, Johnson eventually became Hollywood’s quintessential Western character actor.
He acted in many Westerns with 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.
8. 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; and in 2019 he won an Academy Honorary Award.
9. Irene Bedard
Irene Bedard was born in Anchorage, Alaska, and her ancestry includes 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).
10. 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.
11. John Trudell
John Trudell was a Santee Dakota Native American born in Omaha, Nebraska and grew up on the Santee Sioux Reservation. He served in the US Navy during the Vietnam War. During the 1960 and ‘70s, Trudell was an activist for Native American issues, joining the American Indian Movement and the Alcatraz Red Power Movement.
In the 1990s, Trudell embarked upon an acting career, appearing in films such as Thunderheart (1992), On Deadly Ground (1994), Smoke Signals (1998) and Dark Blood (2012). In Thunderheart, Trudell played a character similar to Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist sentenced to life in prison for his part in the murder of two FBI agents at the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1975.
Trudell was also a songwriter, poet and musician. Interestingly, on his death bed in 2015, he said, “My ride showed up. Celebrate love. Celebrate life."
12. Will Sampson
Will Sampson was a Muscogee 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 Muscogee people, which can be seen in the Creek Council House Museum in Okmulgee, Oklahoma.
13. 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 he 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).
Westerman also appeared on numerous TV shows, namely Northern Exposure, L.A. Law, MacGyver and The X-Files.
14. 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.
Notably, Greyeyes played Sitting Bull in Woman Walks Ahead in 2017. He played the part of Native American Bret Woodard on season three of HBO’s True Detective (2019). In 2021, he joined the cast of the sitcom, Rutherford Falls, playing Terry Thomas, the ambitious C.E.O. of a casino.
15. Eric Schweig
A mixture of Inuvialuk, Chippewa-Dene and German, Eric Schweig was born in Inuvik of the Northwest Territories in Canada. Schweig, along with his six brothers and sisters, were adopted by a white, English-speaking family because the Canadian government wanted all Canadian Indians to become fully integrated into white society.
Feeling trapped, Schweig ran away at 16, beginning a cycle of partying, failed relationships, violence and despair. He said he didn’t know who he was. In spite of these traumatic issues, Schweig began acting in the theatre in 1985, and then landed a film role in The Shaman’s Source (1990).
Like many actors on this list, Schweig has played the part of numerous Native Americans, historical of fictional, in TV and movies, specifically Injun Joe in Tom and Huck (1995) Sitting Bull in Into the West (2005) and Harry Aviak in The Grizzlies (2018).
Interestingly, as a hobby, Schweig carves wooden objects, notably Inuit Spirit Masks.
16. 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.
17. Adam Beach
Adam Beach is a Canadian Native American whose ancestry is Saulteaux First Nations, in addition to some Icelandic roots. Both of Beach’s parents dying when he was only eight, he grew up on the Lake Manitoba First Nation Reserve.
He began his acting career at the age of 18, when he landed a minor role in the miniseries Lost in the Barrens (1990). Beach has also acted in theatrical productions, many TV shows and numerous high profile movies, including Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale (1994), Windtalkers (2002), Skinwalkers (2002), A Thief of Time (2004), Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (2007), Cowboys and Aliens (2011) and Hostiles (2017).
Some of Beach’s best work can be seen in the critically acclaimed and award winning Smoke Signals (1998), an indie film entirely produced by Native Americans.
18. Tantoo Cardinal
Tantoo Cardinal was born in Fort McMurray, Alberta and is a founding member of the Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company. Since the 1970s, Cardinal has acted in theatrical productions, including a Native American production of Shakespeare’s King Lear, as well as many TV shows and movies.
Some of her notable film work was in Dances with Wolves (1990), Silent Tongue (1993), Smoke Signals (1998), Wind River (2017), The Grizzlies (2018) and Hold the Dark (2018).
Interestingly, in 2011, Cardinal was arrested while protesting the proposed additional construction on the Keystone Pipeline; and in 2017 she was given the two lifetime achievement awards for her work in Canadian television and cinema.
19. Rodney A. Grant
Abandoned by his parents when he was an infant, Rodney Grant was raised by his grandparents while living on the Omaha Reservation in Macy, Nebraska.
Grant has acted in numerous movies. His first appearance was in War Party (1988), playing the Crow. He’s also acted in Dances with Wolves (1990), playing Wind in His Hair, Geronimo: An American Legend (1993), Wild, Wild West (1999), Ghosts of Mars (2001) and Dark Blood (2012).
Grant has also acted on TV: Son of the Morning Star (1991), playing Crazy Horse; Hawkeye (1994-1995), playing Chingachgook; and Stargate SG-1 (1998), the “Spirits” episode.
20. Gary Farmer
Born in Ohsweken, Ontario, Gary Farmer is known for his development of First Nations media in Canada and is the one of the founding members for the Aboriginal Voices Radio Network.
A member of the Cayuga Nation of the Wolf Clan, Farmer began his acting career in 1982 on the TV show Spirit Bay and later appeared in Forever Night and The Rez. Able to play quirky, comedic characters, Farmer starred in Dead Man (1995), billed as a psychedelic western. He has also acted in a number of adaptations of Tony Hillerman’s novels: The Dark Wind (1991), Coyote Waits (2003) and A Thief of Time (2004).
He has also appeared in The Red Road (2014), a Sundance TV series. And he is frontman for the blues band Gary Farmer and the Troublemakers, which has released two CDs: Love Songs and Other Issues (2007) and Lovesick Blues (2009).
21. Steve Reevis
Growing up on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana and earning an AA degree at Haskell Indian Junior College in Lawrence, Kansas, Steve Reevis began his show biz career working as a stunt rider in the movie War Party (1987), and then he first appeared as an actor in Twins (1988), starring Arnold Schwarzenegger; he also had a nonspeaking role in Dances with Wolves (1990).
Reevis won FAITA awards for his acting in the movie Fargo (1996) and the TV movie Crazy Horse (1996). He also appeared in scores of other movies, including Last of the Dogmen (1995) and The Longest Yard (2005), as well as many TV shows such as Walker, Texas Ranger, Into the West and Malcolm in the Middle.
22. Eddie Little Sky
A member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, Eddie Little Sky, aka Edward Little, served in the US Navy during World War Two and thereafter hit the rodeo circuit as a bareback rider.
While following the work of Audie Murphy in the film Chief Crazy Horse (1955), Murphy encouraged Little Sky to try acting. Along with Jay Silverheels and Chief Dan George, Little Sky became one of the first full-blooded Native Americans to play Native Americans in film roles. He first appeared in Westward Ho the Wagons! (1956).
Then he acted in many other hit westerns: Paint Your Wagon (1969), Duel at Diablo (1966), Breakheart Pass (1975), The Hallelujah Trail (1965) and A Man Called Horse (1970). Little Sky also appeared in TV shows such as Gunsmoke, Cheyenne, Tales of Wells Fargo, Bonanza, The Virginian, The Rifleman and Daniel Boone.
23. Saginaw Grant
Saginaw Grant was a hereditary chief for the Sac and Fox Nation in Oklahoma. During the Korean War, Grant was in the US Marine Corps. He began his acting career in the late 1980s, appearing as Freddy Man War in War Party (1988). He also acted in many other movies such as: Grey Wolf (1999), World’s Fastest Indian (2005), The Lone Ranger (2013) and Valley of the Gods (2017).
Grant’s list of TV appearances is impressive as well: The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1993), Skinwalkers (2002), Eagleheart (2012), Breaking Bad (2013), Veep (2016), and many others.
Notably, Grant was also a musician; in 2018 he won a Native American Music Award for his album, Don’t Let the Drums Go Silent.
24. Zahn McClarnon
McClarnon grew up in Browning, Montana; his mother was Hunkpapa Lakota and his father hailed from Ireland. He once described his childhood as “rough.”
McClarnon has acted in an astonishing number of TV shows and movies. He appeared in TNT’s Into the West (2005); he had a recurring role as Bodaway Macawi in Ringer (2011); he played Mike Parker in The Red Road (2015), a Sundance TV series; and he appeared as Akecheta in HBO’s Westworld, a performance for which he received critical acclaim.
McClarnon has also appeared in myriad movies: Repo Chick (2009), Bone Tomahawk (2015), Doctor Sleep (2018), Hell on the Border (2019), The Forever Purge (2021) and many more. He also returned to Westworld in 2022.
25. Jimmy Herman
Jimmy Herman was a Native American actor born on the Cold Lake Reserve in Alberta, Canada. As an adult, Herman moved to Edmonton, Alberta, and attended Grant MacEwan College, studying their Native Communications Program; after graduation, he worked for the Native Counseling Services.
Then Herman developed an interest in acting, and his first acting credit was playing Stone Calf in the hit movie Dances with Wolves (1990); he also appeared in Unforgiven (1992), The X-Files (1994), Dreamkeeper (2000) and Santa’s Slay (2005).
In addition, Herman acted in some TV shows—the Canadian Broadcasting Corp’s North of 60, Lonesome Dove: The Outlaw Years (1996), Little House on the Prairie (2005) and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (2007).
26. MorningStar Angeline
Born in Santa Fe, New Mexico, MorningStar Angeline Wilson-Chippewa Freeland is a Navajo and Latina actress, filmmaker and model. She studied photojournalism at Pierce Community College, after which she moved to L.A. and began pursuing a career in acting and filmmaking.
In 2014, she won an award for best supporting actress at the American Indian Film Festival; she portrayed Nizhoni Smiles in Drunktown’s Finest. She also played the title character in The Incredible Twenty-fifth Year of Mitzi Bearclaw (2019).
She’s also acted in many TV series, playing Samantha Long on Yellowstone (2018), Martha Hawk on Outer Range (2022) and Odina in episodes of Westworld (2022).
27. Martin Sensmeier
Martin Sensmeier is an Alaskan Native American of Tlingit-Koyukon-Athabascan ancestry. Born in Anchorage, Alaska, Sensmeier relocated to LA and NYC in the 2010s.
In 2016, he began his acting career by playing small parts in 2014 and ’15; and then in 2016 he snagged a leading role (one of the seven)—a warrior named Red Harvest who dispatches the bad guys with his bow and arrows—in the remake of The Magnificent Seven.
In 2018, Sensmeier played the recurring role of Wanaton in the HBO series Westworld. Also, in 2019, he played the role of Martin, a physical therapist, on the Paramount Network TV series Yellowstone, as well as the role of Sam, a Comanche warrior, in 1883, a prequel to Yellowstone.
Questions & Answers
Question: Do you have information on the actor Chief Many Treaties?
Answer: Since there's lots of information regarding the actor Chief Many Treaties, I will soon add him to this list.
© 2015 Kelley Marks
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on August 18, 2020:
Thanks for the tip Robert Coopey. I'll check out Steve Reevis and probably add him to this list ASAP!...
robert coopey on August 18, 2020:
steve reevis ? dances with wolves, last of the dogmen etc
Elizabeth Oreilly on June 02, 2020:
Love this site more please? It was lovely to read about some of my favorite Native American actors Wes Study has always been one of my favorites. His acting range is phenomenal form fierce warrior in Last Of The Mohegans and Dances With Wolves to chief with a fatal illness who wants to go home to his native birthplace to die in Hostiles Wes’s work mesmerizes me. Some of my other favorites are Graham Green and Rodney A.Grant
Greg Davis on March 30, 2020: