Hollywood isn’t a place where Native Americans will find a lot of opportunities but some signs of change were seen during the industry’s biggest night of the year.
The first was the inclusion of actor Wes Studi, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, as a presenter during the Academy Awards on Sunday evening. He was the first Native American ever to present in the 90-year history of the Oscars ceremony.
Studi, known for his roles in Dances with Wolves, Heat and, more recently, Hostiles, seized the opportunity. He spoke in the Cherokee language as he introduced a montage of military movies, noting that he served in the Vietnam War.
“Oisyo,” he said, or “Hello” in Cherokee. “Appreciation to all veterans and Cherokees who’ve served,” he continued in the language.
“Wado,” he concluded, or “Thank you.”
The presentation, though short, drew universal accolades online. From the Cherokee Nation to Adrienne Keene, a prominent Cherokee scholar, viewers recognized the historic nature of Studi’s appearance.
“Never thought I’d hear Cherokee language on the #Oscars stage,” Keene said, describing herself as a “proud” Cherokee.
“My Great Grandmother was forced to sit in a horse trough with freezing water for hours for speaking her language at a Boarding School, speaking the same language @WesleyStudi did on the #Oscar stage,” added Danielle Mayberry, an attorney.
But Studi, who attended the ceremony in Los Angeles, California, with his wife, wasn’t the only Native person on stage on Sunday. Alice Brown Otter, a young citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, was recognized during a performance of one of the compositions nominated for Best Original Song.
And the song, “Stand Up For Something” by Andra Day featuring Common.couldn’t have been more appropriate. Brown Otter, just 14 years old, rose to prominence as one of the young leaders of the #NoDAPL movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“On rock, we stand like this Native land,” reads a line in the song, which was part of the original motion picture soundtrack for Marshall, a film about Thurgood Marshall, who was the first African American justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Though the song didn’t win the Oscar, the performance has proven popular, drawing more than 100,000 views on Twitter alone. Brown Otter, who teased her appearance on her personal Facebook page on Saturday, was joined on stage by nine other activists.
The presence of two Native people on stage comes as Hollywood continues to grapple with diversity, gender and sexual harassment issues. Up until 2016, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which produces the Oscars and determines who gets nominated and who wins the prestigious award, had just one Native member — Sonny Skyhawk, a citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and the founder of the American Indians in Film and Television.
Following the #OscarsSoWhite movement that highlighted the lack of diversity in film, four Native Americans were invited to join. The list included writer Sherman Alexie, who issued a blanket apology last week after Indianz.Com published a story in which he was accused of sexual harassment.
Before those allegations came to light, women in Hollywood launched the #TimesUp campaign to call out sexual harassment in the industry. Their stories, along with the #MeToo movement, helped lead to the downfall of top executive Harvey Weinstein, whose production company distributed Smoke Signals, Alexie’s breakout film.
Beyond issuing a statement, Alexie has not responded to repeated requests from Indianz.Com to comment about the allegations against him.
According to the Screen Actors Guild, Native roles accounted for just 0.3 percent of all on-screen parts in film and television in 2008. The figures haven’t been updated since then but prior data shows an extreme lack of options for Native talent.
Wes Studi is one of the few Native actors who has continued land roles in film and television. Yet his performance in Hostiles, in which he portrayed a Cheyenne chief who was held prisoner by the federal government, was passed over by the Oscars. The film itself was shut out of nominations as well.
Still, Studi has remained optimistic. “This movie is going to change Hollywood,” he said at a screening of the film in Washington, D.C., in
January, before the Oscars nominations came out.
He also lauded the directors for including the Cheyenne language in the film and for reaching out to Indian Country, something that hasn’t always happened in Hollywood. Filmmaker Chris Eyre, who is Cheyenne and Arapaho, and Joely Proudfit, a descendant of the Pechanga Band of Luiseno
Indians, served as consultants for the project.
“It’s a a different style of filmmaking,” Studi said of the production.
Few Natives have ever been nominated for an Oscar — The Associated Press counted just three. Only one of them, Buffy Sainte-Marie, who is Cree, won for her original song, “Up Where We Belong” in 1983.
Few Natives have ever appeared on stage as well. Prior to Sunday night, found two instances, including the one by activist and actress Sacheen Littlefeather way back in 1973.