Actor Wes Studi this weekend will become the second Native American ever inducted into the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum’s Hall of Great Western Performers in Oklahoma City.
In an interview from his home in Arroyo Hondo on Wednesday, Studi said the honor is particularly significant because “I’m the only one who’s still alive.”
Honored posthumously at the same ceremony on Saturday will be Duncan Reynaldo (1904-1980), known for his roles as the Cisco Kid; Leo Carrillo (1881-1961), who played the Kid’s sidekick, Pancho, and famed film noir actor Robert Mitchum (1917-1997).
The only other American Indian in the Hall of Great Western Performers is Jay Silverheels (1912-1980), a Canadian Mohawk First Nations actor known for playing Tonto in the 1950s television series The Lone Ranger. He was inducted in 1993.
Growing up in northeastern Oklahoma, Studi spoke only the Cherokee language until he went to boarding school. He remains an advocate of preserving native languages. After serving in the Army in Vietnam — in what he has described as a form of catharsis — he joined the American Indian Movement. That led to him participating in the Trail of Broken Treaties protest march and the occupation of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C., in 1972 and the occupation of Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1973.
He returned to the Cherokee reservation in Oklahoma, attended college on the GI Bill, helped start a Cherokee newspaper and then ran his own horse ranch and became a professional horse trainer. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Studi turned to acting — live theater in Oklahoma, television and then his first feature film role in Powwow Highway, partly filmed in New Mexico.
A small roll in the ABC-TV movie Longarm brought him to Santa Fe in 1988, and a few years later, he and his wife, Maura Dhu Studi, a singer and actress whom he had met in Los Angeles, decided to make Santa Fe their home. They lived in town for the first two years, then moved to Arroyo Hondo. He said he no longer keeps horses, but many of his neighbors do.
“We’ve been here for 20 years,” Studi said. “The big reason is I like the area. I like the lack of humidity. My family lives in northeastern Oklahoma … and then my wife’s family lives in Los Angeles, and this is like halfway between the two. So it’s good logistics.”
Studi is known for his portrayal of Native Americans, such as a Pawnee warrior in Dances with Wolves (1990), Magua in The Last of the Mohicans (1992), the Apache leader in Geronimo: An American Legend (1993) and Navajo detective Joe Leaphorn in three made-for-TV movies (2002-2004) based on mysteries by the late New Mexican writer Tony Hillerman.
But Studi figures that about half of his roles have been “non-ethnic-specific” ones — like those in two productions slated for release this year. He will voice a character in the animated Disney film Planes, a sequel to Cars, and play another non-Indian role in the horror-thriller Battledogs. He returns to Indian themes in another film scheduled for release this year, Road to Paloma.
“It’s basically an action-biker kind of movie,” he said. “But it’s core story has to do with domestic violence against women on reservations in Indian Country by people not of the reservations or Indian Country and the ability of tribal authorities to actually prosecute those crimes. While we stepped up a little bit in terms of the Violence Against Women Act that was signed within the past month — there are a few provisions in there that allow for tribal governments and their law-enforcement agencies to be able to respond to these crimes — it’s a very small half-step in the right direction.”
Studi said although most of his movie projects take him away from home, his next project will be in Santa Fe in Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West.
“They start shooting in May,” he said. “I believe my time comes up in July. I’m spending a full summer out here. I’ll probably play one of the ways to die in the West.”