October 13th, 2019 Last Updated on: February 24th, 2021
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.
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.
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.
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