Wes Studi: A Film Icon and Native American Oscar Winner

Wes Studi: A Film Icon and Native American Oscar Winner

In the vast world of film, a few Native American actors stand out. Chief among them is Wes Studi, who starred in some of the most famous depictions of Native Americans, including Dances with Wolves (1990) and The Last of the Mohicans (1992).

In a world that doesn’t always value authenticity—after all, there have been many instances of Native Americans being played by people who are not Native at all—Studi is a genuine Native American actor who approaches all his roles with the utmost respect and poignancy.

Whether you’re a fan of Studi’s work or you’re just now learning about him, you’ll enjoy learning more about who he is and what he has accomplished in his long career of acting and activism.

Read on to learn more about this influential man and his upcoming honorary Oscar award.

Wes Studi’s Life and Career

Studi’s website describes him simply as an “award-winning actor, musician, and artist,” but there’s a lot more to say about him and his life’s work.

Early Life

Studi was born in 1947 and was raised in the small town of Nofire Hollow, Oklahoma into the Cherokee tribe. Until he was 5 years old, he only spoke the Cherokee language at home. At the age of 5, he went to public school and later, the Chilocco Indian Boarding School in Oklahoma. While many Native people have lost their native Cherokee language after being immersed in an English-speaking world, Studi still speaks Cherokee to this day.

Serving in Vietnam

Like many men of the time period, Studi joined the U.S. Army around the time of the Vietnam War. While stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia, Studi elected to go fight in Vietnam. He had heard stories of the war from fellow Army colleagues and wanted to do everything he could to end the war, even though he only had one year of his six-year term left. While serving in South Vietnam, Studi had experiences that would shape the rest of his life and spark his activism efforts.

Returning Home

After Studi returned from Vietnam, he became very active in protesting with the American Indian Movement. He marched on Washington, occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs building, and participated at the Wounded Knee occupation, which led to his arrest. After that, he switched tactics, working for the Cherokee Nation in an effort to bring about positive change.

Studi’s Post-Army Career

During this time, Studi attended Northeastern University in Talequah. After graduating, he opened a horse ranch and worked as a professional horse trainer—a skill that would soon serve him well in the film industry. He joined the American Indian Theatre Company in Oklahoma in the 80’s, where he developed a love for acting.


Moving to LA & Starring in Feature Films

After discovering his love for acting—on the professional stage, in film (Powwow Highway, his debut) and on TV (in the TV movie Longarm)—Studi moved to Los Angeles. His roles were memorable from the start. He drew on his life experiences—his upbringing in the Cherokee culture and his time at war—to create characters that were strong and compelling. In 1990, he was in Dances with Wolves with Kevin Costner, which had twelve Oscar nominations. In 1992, he starred in The Last of the Mohicans with Daniel Day-Lewis.

Since then, he’s been in many more films and TV shows—around 80 in total—including playing Geronimo in Geronimo: An American Legend (1993), Heat (1995), Deep Rising (1998), Mystery Men (1999) and much, much more. From his website:

“Wes’ other notable film credits include: “The Only Good Indian,” which he also produced, James Cameron’s Academy Award-winning “Avatar,” “The New World,” “Street Fighter,” “Seraphim Falls,” “Three Priests,” and such prestigious television movies as “Crazy Horse,” “Comanche Moon,” “Streets of Laredo,” “Broken Chain,” and “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” His television credits include Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful,” “The Mentalist,” “Hell on Wheels,” and General Abner in “Kings.””

Studi’s Family, Hobbies and More

More than just an actor, Studi is also a musician and artist, as mentioned earlier. He plays guitar and bass in his band, Firecat of Discord. He has toured with his band in the past. He also has the unusual skill of stone carving. He has written two children’s books and has remained an activist when it comes to indigenous languages and culture. Studi currently lives in New Mexico with his wife, Maura, and has three children.

Wes Studi’s Accomplishments Are Being Honored with an Oscar

Despite the many Native American actors who have graced the screens for decades, Wes Studi is the first to win an Oscar at the upcoming Governors Awards ceremony on Sunday, October 27th, 2019. He will also be acknowledged at the next Academy Awards ceremony in February.

This Governors Award is issued by the Academy’s Board of Governors, but the award is not tied to a specific film. Rather, it’s an honorary award that looks at the accomplishments throughout an actor’s career. 

According to the Academy,

 “Governors Awards given by the Academy each year recognize individuals who have devoted themselves to a lifetime of artistic accomplishment and brought outstanding contributions to our industry, and beyond.”

Since the February Academy Awards are limited for time, this separate, black-tie ceremony—which includes a celebratory dinner— is designed to ensure that there’s enough time to honor everyone. Around 500 people are invited, film clips are shown, and remarks are given by the honorees’ colleagues and admirers. The Academy states that it wants to honor “truly worthy individuals” and give each honoree “his or her full due, without compromise.”

At the Governors Awards, Studi will be honored alongside two other outstanding individuals: David Lynch and Lina Wertmuller. Lynch is a filmmaker, artist and musician with a prolific directing career, while Wertmuller is the writer and director of several notable films of the 1960s and 70s.

We hope this inspires you to watch or re-watch one of Studi’s many amazing performances in film and TV.

He is truly an incredible man, and we’re proud to see his accomplishments being honored with an Oscar!

Wes Studi Filmography

  • 1988 The Trial of Standing Bear
  • 1989 Pow Wow Highway
  • 1990 Dances with Wolves
  • 1990 The Flash
  • 1991 The Doors
  • 1992 The Last of the Mohicans
  • 1993 Geronimo: An American Legend
  • 1993 The Broken Chain
  • 1994 Street Fighter
  • 1995 Lone Justice 2
  • 1995 Heat
  • 1995 Streets of Laredo
  • 1995 500 Nations
  • 1995 The Way West
  • 1996 The Killing Jar
  • 1997 Crazy Horse
  • 1997 Promised Land
  • 1997 Big Guns Talk: The Story of the Western
  • 1998 Deep Rising
  • 1998 The Horse Whisperer
  • 1998 Soundman
  • 1999 Mystery Man
  • 2001 Ice Planet
  • 2001 Christmas in the Clouds
  • 2001 Road to Redemption
  • 2001 The Directors
  • 2002 Undisputed
  • 2002 Skinwalkers
  • 2003 Edge of America
  • 2003 The Ugly One
  • 2002 Coyote Waits
  • 2003 The Lone Ranger
  • 2004 Echoes from Juniper Canyon
  • 2004 A Thief in Time
  • 2005 Into the West
  • 2005 Animal
  • 2005 Miracle at Sage Creek
  • 2005 The New World
  • 2006 The Trail of Tears: Cherokee Legacy
  • 2007 Seraphim Falls
  • 2007 Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
  • 2008 Comanche Moon
  • 2008 Older Than America
  • 2009 Avatar
  • 2009 Trail of Tears
  • 2009 Kings
  • 2009 The Only Good India
  • 2010 The Mentalist
  • 2011 Hell on Wheels
  • 2012 Being Flynn
  • 2012 Call of the Wild
  • 2013 Sugar
  • 2013 Road to Paloma
  • 2013 Battledogs
  • 2014 A Million Ways to Die in the West
  • 2014 Planes: Fire and Rescue
  • 2015 The Red Road
  • 2015 The condemned 2
  • 2016 Penny Dreadful
  • 2017 Hostiles
  • 2019 A Dog's Way Home

If you're interested, here are our 10 favorite Native American movies on Netflix.

Last Updated on February 24, 2021 by Jared McKiernan

About Paul G

Paul G is the founder PowWows.com, who wears many hats as a business coach, photographer, and collector of quirky shirts. Paul started PowWows.com in 1996 while pursuing his graduate degree. With a passion for travel, he and his family hav  traveled the world, capturing unforgettable memories and photos. When he's not coaching or clicking, he's indulging in the magic of Disney.

10 Comments on “Wes Studi: A Film Icon and Native American Oscar Winner”

  • Avatar for Ro



    Wes, I love your acting skills and your many movies. Dances With Wolves is one of my favorites. I hope you keep acting for many more years.
    I am a big fan.
    Being raised in Eastern Oklahoma, Westville, attending Northeastern State University, and being a registered Cherokee makes me so proud of you as a fellow Cherokee.
    Best wishes for a very happy future.

  • Avatar for Martha Farrellbegg

    Martha Farrellbegg


    Wes Study….I consider you an AWESOME and great talented person! I have seen almost all of your movies and all were amazing…..

  • Avatar for Native@Heart



    I have always enjoyed movies with Wes Studi in them. He always brought authenticity to the roles he played. I also liked Chief Dan George & Graham Greene. It is great to hear that Wes Studi was recognized for his work. A’Ho

  • Avatar for Michael Johnson

    NOTHING is noted on television or anywhere in the news about ANY awards being given out on Sunday today’s date the 27th of October no Governors Awards anywhere ????

  • Avatar for Mikhah Reaves

    Osyio!! Great to know another Tsaligi is getting reconition!! Wado!!

    • Avatar for Carlette



      Aho, gratitude. 🦅

  • Avatar for Maryann Helgeson

    Maryann Helgeson


    I have followed Wes Studi’s movies for years. He’s a great actor…..I like him as a person, but hate him as a villain in some of his roles; he can play them so well ex: Last of the Mohicans . Yet he can be a caring man in other roles.

    I also remember Wounded knee and activists such as Russell Means, Dennis Banks, etc. I understand Mr. Studi was there too. I tried to keep up with what was happening each day.

    I hope you continue making movies, so I can hate you some more (just kidding ).
    The best to you.

  • Avatar for Rubicon De Pooter

    Gefeliciteerd met de persoonlijke triomf over de Westerse filmhoofden heen overgoten als wij worden met westerns van allerlei slag wanneer je er dan in slaagt als individu je indiaanse voetafdruk op de wereld te plaatsen als onvoorwaardelijk authentiek!

  • Avatar for Ric Taylor

    Ric Taylor


    Greetings. Hoping this finds you on excellent health and spirits. Indeed, I was delighted to read the accolades of such an accomplished Artist: Wes Studi.
    As A fan of many years, The article comes as a welcomed treat.
    Well Done indeed, Mr. Studi! Your work captures the hearts of many and will Live on for generations to come! Wado (Thanks)!
    GOD Bless…

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