My Top 5 Favorite Native American Actors

My Top 5 Favorite Native American Actors

Posted By Paul G June 26th, 2020 Last Updated on: November 6th, 2020

It is no secret that Native Americans have had a rough history, filled with segregation, hate, and discrimination. For a long time, Hollywood films represented Native Americans unfavorably, representing them in marginalized and inaccurate behavior. Indian filmmakers and Native American actors had to fight to develop an artistic voice for themselves, carving out space for accurate expression in film. 

Today, modern Native American movies have progressed significantly in the representation, compared to popular Western films that featured cowboys who pitted against or were aided by some one-dimensional Indian characters. Though I commend all Native American actors, there have been many incredible ones that I have favored, and I would love to share them with you.

You'll see my bias based on my favorite movies and TV shows!

Who are your favorites? 

Who did I leave off?

Wes Studi

  • Tribe: Cherokee
  • Some Featured Films: Dances with Wolves, The Last of The Mohicans and A Dog's Way Home

Wes Studi was born in 1947 in Nofire Hollow, Oklahoma, and an internationally acclaimed actor and musician. He has been in numerous films, delivering powerful character portrayals that have helped Hollywood change the prolonged stereotypes. He has been in over 80 movies and TV productions and currently lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his wife, two sons, and daughter.

Zahn McClaron

  • Tribe: Hunkpapa Lakota
  • Some Featured Films: Silent Fall, Resolution, and Togo

Zahn was born in 1966 in Denver, Colorado, and has a Native American and Irish descent. He began his acting career in high school and has been in countless movies and TV productions, including Westworld and Timeless. In 2017, Zahn took a fall that caused a brain injury that required hospitalization, which stopped Westworld production for a bit. However, he got back up and is still going strong.

Adam Beach 

  • Tribe: Anishinaabe member of the Saulteaux tribe
  • Some Featured Films: Windtalkers, Cowboy & Aliens, and Smoke Signals

Adam was born in 1972 in Ashern, Manitoba, and is best known for his role as Victor in Smoke Signals and Tommy in Walker, Texas Ranger. Growing up, he spent his days on the Lake Manitoba/Dog Creek First Nation Reserve at Lake Manitoba. He started his career by attending drama class at Gordon Bell High School, which inspired him to perform at the local theatre, and then dropping out of school to pursue his acting career in full force.  Today, he has been married three times, has three children.

Irene Bedard

  • Tribe: Inuit and Cree ancestry
  • Some Featured Films: Smoke Signals, Pocahontas (voice), and The Harbinger

Born in 1967, Irene grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, and is a well-known Native American actress. She has played a variety of characters in memorable films, and what shaped her title was her voice-over role in the 1995 animated film, Pocahontas. Her first role was in the movie Mary Crow Dog in 1994 and went on to make a strong name for herself since. Though Irene has been divorced since 2012, she is the mother of one son named Quinn Wilson.

And I absolutely love this scene from Wreck It Raph 2!

Graham Greene

  • Tribe: Oneida
  • Some Featured Films: Dances with Wolves, The Wild Girl, and Thunderheart

Graham Greene is an Oneida Indian and was born on the Six Nations Reserve in 1952. Starting out his life, he worked as a carpenter, a rock music roadie, a welder, band manager, and a recording studio owner. Jumping into the acting, he began with minor roles in movies, but skyrocketed to fame after receiving an Oscar nomination for his acting role in Dances with Wolves.

Native films have flourished in recent years, and the productions that have come out are second to none. I love movies with respected Native American actors, especially when they have such amazing talent that can really transform the storyline into something captivating. The list of actors above are some of those said people, who made an extraordinary mark in not only my life, but many others as well. So, go check out their movies for yourself, and see if you enjoy their acting as much as I do.

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101 thoughts on “My Top 5 Favorite Native American Actors

  1. Heidi Florance says:

    Graham Greene, Leonard Peltier. Floyd Westerman, Wes Studi, and any of the Spears bros

  2. It is hard for me to choose as I love them ALL. I am TOLD that I am of Cherokee & Lakota decent & have been “dubbed” woman who watches by the Cherokee…..
    I have been trying to learn the Cherokee language….for some time. I have attended 5 pow wows two in Oklahoma one in Ft Sisseton S.D. 1 in Colo & one in Nebraska They are so AWESOME!!!!!!

    • Jeffrey C Robinson says:

      Some of my favorite Native thespians are Michael Greyeyes, Tantoo Cartenal, Rodney Grant,Wes Studi,Graham Green. All marvelous actors, Adam Beach and Elaine Miles I had the privilege of meeting at the Gathering Of Nations Pow Wow in Albuquerque, New Mexico 🇲🇽!

  3. : Dances with Wolves, The Last of The Mohicans, and A Dog’s Way Home
    Wes Studi was born in 1947 in No fire Hollow, Oklahoma, and an internationally acclaimed actor and musician. He has been in numerous films, delivering powerful character portrayals that have helped Hollywood change the prolonged stereotypes. He has been in over 80 movies and TV productions and currently lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his wife, two sons, and daughter.I liked them all,

    • Nita Cutler says:

      The movie was Lakota Woman, Mary Crow Dog is the woman she portrayed. I own a copy.

  4. clydia defreese says:

    Chief Dan George , if he’s the guy in Josie Wales, is the one I remember most clearly. He always has such a dry wit, and such a observing countenance. I love his character always.

    • Martha Farrellbegg says:

      I love all of the Native American Actors…..they are awesome ……so many, Graham Greene, Wes Studi, Russell Means, and many more!

  5. My friend Joseph Runningfox…Young Geronimo in TNT movie version if I’m recalling correctly

  6. I like Elaine Miles, Tantoo Cardinal, Graham Greene, Wes Studi, Rodney Grant, Will Sampson, Russell Means, Jay Silver Heels, Michael Greyeyes and Michelle St John. I know you asked for 5 but once I started I couldn’t stop.

  7. Terry Colvin says:

    I would add to the list Will Sampson (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and Chief Dan George (Old LOodgeskins in Little Big Man).

    • Francine R Root-Adler says:

      My favorite is Graham Greene. It was my goal to see all of his early movies. Thank G-d for Graham Greene I was struggling with deep depression and his movies saved me. Can’t count how many times I have seen Thunderheart!

    • Melanie Myers Ibarra says:

      And dont forget RUSSELL MEANS in “Last of the Mohicans” !!!
      plus Eric Schwieg (forgive my spelling)

  8. Grace A Metoxen says:

    Forgot the late Steve Reevis. Also, Eric Schweig and the late Will Samson.

    • Melanie Myers Ibarra says:

      THANK YOU Grace!!! Steve Reevis and WIll Sampson will ALWAYS be my favorites…may they both R.I.P. !!
      Steve Reevis in “Last of the Dogmen”
      and ofcourse Will Sampson in “One flew over the Cookoos Nest”

  9. Charlene says:

    I am in absolute agreement about Zahn McClarnon. There is something really special about him that is transparent in his acting, whatever the role. He conveys so much through expression alone and he became my favorite from the Longmire series. Just finished watching Barkskins, well done!

  10. Roger Williams says:

    You have picked my favorite actors in your group, but I agree with most Wes Studi stands out as one of the best we have ever had. He has visited our community in Southwest Michigan several times and I have spoken to him a couple of times in those visits, besides the great talent he expresses in his work he is one of the most personable individuals I have ever met, especially to his people. No monuments are necessary his work speaks for itself.

    • Jerri Paulk says:

      You and others who have responded have named many great Native actors. Chief Dan George of “The Outlaw Josie Wails”; Will Sampson of an hour long PI program set in Vegas; Adam Beach; Wes Studi; Graham Greene whom I’ve met at a Powwow in Southern CA; Dennis Banks; Floyd Westerman; ” Grandpa Reaches” from Thunderheart, and many more. Than you everyone for the walk down memory lane!!!

    • Francine R Root-Adler says:

      My favorite is Graham Greene. It was my goal to see all of his early movies. Thank G-d for Graham Greene I was struggling with deep depression and his movies saved me. Can’t count how many times I have seen Thunderheart! Also agree with Silvan. A lot of really fine Native Actors!

  11. Graham Green and Gil Birmingham both starred in Windriver…an awesome movie. Martin Sensmeier was also in the movie. He’s proving to be a great actor. He starred in an episode of FBI’s Most Wanted and boy was I impressed.

    • Rozine Tressider says:

      Tantoo Cardnial, Irene Badard, Adam Beach, Lou Diamonds Phillips, Graham Green and Can’t forget Wes Studi.

      • Melanie Myers Ibarra says:

        Lou Diamond Phillips was really good in Young Guns I/II…
        even though he is actually Phillipino.

        • Linda Monroe says:

          I agree that Lou Diamond Phillips needed to be included-Philipino is an Indigenous culture. He also was a great Jim Chee in the films of Tony Hillerman’s novels about the Navajo Tribal Police mysteries.
          Another actor who needs recognition (so glad other replies have reminded me of so many Native Actors) is Gary Davis, aka “Litefoot” . He began his career as a rap artist promoting positive cultural ideals. He starred in “The Indian in the Cupboard” movie, “Song of Hiawatha” with Russell Means, Graham Greene and Irene Bedard. As well as”Krull, the Conqueror”

    • He cracked me up in that movie (Thunderheart.) Loved his lines: “Federal Bureau of Intimidation” and the like whenever he addressed Val Kilmer’s character.

  12. p.s. Think I just watched that first Graham Greene movie shown on this page, last week… it was on a disc with several other NA movies, with only info on one: I Will Fight No More Forever..

    My favorite GG movie is: DREAM KEEPER… Greene also played “Leonard” the Shaman on the TV series: NORTHERN EXPOSURE… (I have the entire series on disc,…love it)

    Graham Greene, Wes Studi, Adam Beach are faves, to name a few…

  13. Patricia Timbrook says:

    Heads up! Program to show on TV Tuesday night. Channel???
    “Blackfeet Boxing Not Invisible”.
    It will be very good and informable.
    Have you heard about it?

    • Not heard of Blackfeet Boxing Not Invisible…do you know the time and which time zone i.e. EDT, MDT, etc…??

      Have Blackfeet friend in FL I would like to share info w/her on this…Thanks,

      • Rozine Tressider says:

        Tantoo Cardnial, Irene Badard, Adam Beach, Lou Diamonds Phillips, Graham Green

  14. Linda Reineman says:

    Don’t forget Jay Silverheels, aka Tonto, of the Lone Ranger series. Mohawk of the Six Nations Indian Reservation.

  15. I have to admit, I love them all too! but Irene Bedard came to our powwow in Manistee ,Michigan and she and her husband serenaded us at both the powwow and the Little River Casino.She was quite lovely and gracious,my son had his picture taken with her,which I cherish because he is gone now.

  16. Darla Hitchcock says:

    Um, Graham Greene was born in 1952, not 1972, and it’s WES Studi, not WEST Studi. Other than that, great list.

  17. Karen Klinck says:

    Jay Silverheels. As far as I know, he was the first Native to play a Native, and he did so with dignity and grace. O know he came from downstate New York, but his tribal connections were never publicized during his life.

  18. Leona di Colori says:

    These are all very good actors. I like them all. Also I like Tantoo Cardinal, Tom Jackson, Tina Keeper, Eric Schweig, Michael Greyeyes , Michael and Eddie Spears, Rodney A. Grant, Q´Orianca Kilcher, Atticus Todd, Sherman Alexy, Tokkala Clifford and of course Keanu Reeves (Matrix) ,Taylor Lautner (Twighlight) and the Younger one : Moony and Kody Dayish: for acting indigenous humor. There are so many more good actors. Greetings and thanks to all actors for their work and messages to the people. Greetings from Germany.

    • Annemiek says:

      Great list you have here. I forgot to mention Tina Keeper. She was also a member of parliament up here in Ottawa for a term.

      • We buklove Evan Adams up here in Canada… Smoke Signals, Escape to the Barrens and more. He is now an inspiring doctor and voice of indigenous health.

  19. Lynn Jenkinson says:

    Here’s another great actor! Tantoo Cardinal. I love all the actors on your list. Graham Greene is my all-time favorite along with Wes Studi. Also, Irene Bedard. Let’s not forget Adam Beach. So many great Native American actors!!

  20. Victoria Bafitis says:

    Graham Green, West Studi, Gil Birmingham, Adam Beach, Jay Silverheels and Will Sampson

  21. Joie Bourisseau says:

    Good job, Paul!! I learned a few things about my favorite First Peoples!! However, I’ve always seen, and spoken, “WES” Studi. Won’t ride a rodeo on that, but that’s the way I’ve seen it. Blessings Nikanisitook

    btw ~ I don’t usually participate with the POW WOW scene, but appreciate diving into the photography. I’ve enjoyed knowing where I can learn a few things!! Miigwetch!

  22. Don Shanks, Will Sampson,Wes Studi, Graham Greene. I’m sure I forget great actors, I’m sorry for that

    • Felicia McCullough says:

      I agree fully! All of them are terrific actors! A credit to the field!

      • Kenna Talbott says:

        I love them ALL… Everyone is fantastic!!!! Could watch these movies over and over.

  23. Lidia Huante says:

    Adam Beach, Wes Studi, Irene Bedard –YES!
    Also: Tantoo Cardinal and Gary Farmer! All great actors and a pleasure to watch

  24. Tough choices!! But I loved Graham Green in Dances With Wolves. Who was the “angry Indian” in that film?? He is stunning! Smoke Signals was a great film too ….. the scenes on the res were perfect……So so happy to see films about our people in realistic terms.

  25. Marilyn Prinzing says:

    Have always loved Graham Green. Even as a child I detested the use of Italian actors by Hollywood to portray Native peoples. Thank you for your film list.

  26. Carolyne Lain says:

    Wes Studi, Graham Greene, Lorne Green, Adam Beach, Burt Reynolds, Cher.

      • Clotilde says:

        Elvis Presley was very native Cherokee on the side of his mother, Michael Jackson Choctaw on the side of his father, Kevin Costner and many others that we do not know or suspect.

    • Cher’s claim of 1/16th Cherokee has been debunked and lampooned. Burt Reynolds’s claim was never verified.

      • Melanie Myers Ibarra says:

        I thought Cher was Aluet (however u spell it) from Alaska??

    • Grace A Metoxen says:

      Lorne Greene was not native American. Neither is Cher; she, herself, denied it after her publicist was the one who started this claim. Burt Reynolds is also questionable

    • Tammie says:

      My all time favorite is definitely West Studi. I’m of Cherokee decent. I would love to meet him one day and talk to him. I share the love of nature and herbal medicine as my Cherokee Great grandmother did. She doctored many in the Tennessee mountains until she died.

    • Ravi Singh says:

      Hi yes,

      I am a follower of Graham Greene and have seen much of his work. There is an error in his year of birth. Lauri is correct it is 1952.

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