munchman: Wes Studi And a Brief History of Native Americans in Film

It’s not often that GQ schools us in anything other than style, but the following article on Native actor Wes Studi is a fascinating and insightful lesson in both Studi’s life and what it feels like to grow up as an oppressed people within the United States.

In other words, if you’re reading this for muncherisms, you might as well stop now. Even “yer friendly neighborhood munchawhatever” knows when it’s time for the straight goods instead of snark.

The Untold Stories of Wes Studi
by Tommy Orange

When Wes Studi broke through in Dances With Wolves and The Last of the Mohicans, he was cast as a terrifying villain. But for many in the Native community, he was a hero channeling decades of righteous anger. Tommy Orange tells the story of an overlooked icon who forever changed the way Indigenous people are depicted onscreen.

Wes Studi, photo by Michael Schmelling

We went to see Dances With Wolves in the theater as a family. I don’t know how many movies all of us went to together. That was maybe the only one. Native people playing Native people in a movie being shown in a movie theater? It was an event. This was 1990. I was eight. There’d been nothing close to that moment in my lifetime. We were used to Italian Americans playing crying Indians in anti-litter PSAs. Otherwise, I’d seen no Native people onscreen. After the movie, in the car, my dad, a Cheyenne man from Oklahoma who’d majored in Native American studies at Cal Berkeley, summed it up as “glamorized Indian history with white man hero.” But at the time I was hungry to see any Native actors at all. You can’t know what it’s like unless you know what it’s like, to want to see yourself in the world as badly as Native people do—we who, on top of being almost completely unrepresented, are misrepresented when we are represented. So what if Dances With Wolves made us the backdrop for the dominant culture’s bearded-nice-guy-white-hero mythology? At least we were there, living and breathing onscreen, even laughing, even making jokes at Kevin Costner’s expense, showing how we tease like we do. Make us villains, fine, but make us the toughest Pawnee anyone had ever seen. Enter Wes Studi.

The first Native person to appear in the film—some 30 minutes into what seems until then a sleepy Civil War story—Wes is shown debating with his fellow Pawnee about whether to attack a white man who’s built a distant campfire. “I would rather die than argue about a single line of smoke in my own country,” he proclaims. The way he said “my own country,” the way his face exuded a kind of effortless ferocity, scared me and made me proud all at once. Then watching him kill that guy as he begged them not to hurt his mules while one of the other Pawnee enjoyed some of his campfire food—that really did something to me. I felt changed leaving the theater. And a couple of years later, when Wes played Magua, the vengeful Huron warrior in The Last of the Mohicans, I found that I was rooting for the villain. If I had only two options as far as Native depiction in film went—to root for the villain or root against Native people—I’d choose the villain every time….

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