Indian actors strive to be positive role models

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Last Updated: 6 years

For decades Hollywood portrayed Indians as savages, enemies and losers. Now a generation of Native American filmmakers and actors is trying to overturn stereotypes and tell its own truth.

“Not many movies have us portrayed as winners,” actor Eddie Spears told an audience of about 75 at Montana State University on Thursday night.
Spears stars as an angry young Navajo boxer in the independent film “Black Cloud.” The movie, shown by MSU’s Native American studies department, deals with such reservation problems as racism and alcoholism. Yet it also gives an Indian character the chance to be a champion in the ring.

“It’s a message I hope reaches a lot of kids,” Spears said.

Eddie Spears, 22, and his brother Michael Spears, 26, members of the Lakota Sioux Lower Brule Tribe of South Dakota, talked about being actors and trying to have a positive impact, both on the movies and on the Indian kids they meet at schools.

“This is a great power,” Michael said. “Like Spiderman said, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.'”

Making “Black Cloud” was hard, Eddie said. “It drained me. Don’t ever let anybody tell you acting is easy.”

He learned to box from Jimmy Gambina, who also coached the first “Rocky” film and “The Champ,” in which Rick Schroder was a child actor. Schroder wrote, produced, directed and played a villain in “Black Cloud.”

Schroder couldn’t get Hollywood funding to make “Black Cloud,” so he approached tribal councils, Eddie said. The film was shot in 24 days for less than $1 million.

“Rick wrote it in six weeks, not knowing any Indians at all,” Spears said.

During filming, the Indian actors, including longtime activist Russell Means, collaborated with Schroder in trying to make the movie authentic.

The film’s heart is in the right place — Indians struggle to overcome poverty, slimy bureaucrats, alcoholism, hopelessness — but it delivers its messages with all the subtlety of a right hook. Singer Tim McGraw, as a bad-guy sheriff, wears a black hat. Schroder, as a racist cowboy, declares Indian women are “all whores.”

Still, the MSU audience applauded enthusiastically, and one woman said it was “beautifully done.”

The Spears brothers got the movie bug when Michael, then 10, was cast in “Dances with Wolves” as a boy whose life is saved by Kevin Costner’s character.

Michael has since appeared in seven TV and film productions, including “Skins” by native director Chris Eyre. Eddie has appeared in eight, including Hallmark’s “Dream Keeper.”

Michael just finished filming in Canada for the $50 million TNT mini-series “Into the West,” for which Steven Spielberg is executive director. The 12-hour epic is to be released in 2005.

It tells the story of a white settler family and an Indian family whose children marry and follows generations of the family, said Jennie Saks of Bozeman, N.A.S.S. Talent Management owner and the brothers’ agent and manager.

Eddie gets to play Red Lance, who kills Custer.

“I’m not going to let Charles Bronson play an Indian anymore,” Michael told the audience.

“Hopefully, someday we’ll be doing our own movies.”

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Gail Schontzler is a staff writer for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. She can be reached by email at gails@dailychronicle.com