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50 Faces, Part VII: Callingbull, Momoa, Blackhorse, Valbuena, Birmingham

Five more remarkable achievers from Indian country: Ashley Callingbull, Jason Momoa, Amanda Blackhorse, Lynn Valbuena, and Gil Birmingham
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Here's the seventh -- and by no means final -- batch of Native notables featured in our inaugural 50 Faces of Indian Country list. Beauty, brains, integrity, achevement -- the themes continue. We'll add brawn for this particular batch, seeing as it includes not one but two muscular he-men who've played Conan the Barbarian. These profiles were included in a special issue of our weekly e-newsletter; for the growing archive, check out The 2015 50 Faces of Indian Country.

Ashley Callingbull

Photo: Jade Ehlers

Ashley Callingbull

Watch any pageant and you’ll hear a lot about leadership and positive role models – take a look at Ashley Callingbull’s achievements and you’ll see both in practice. In 2010, Callingbull, Enoch Cree, grabbed national and Native attention by finishing second runner-up in the Miss Universe Canada pageant. She immediately put her fame to work as an ambassador and advocate, for causes including Stollery Children’s Hospital, Walk for the Cure and Run for the Lung. She also cultivated her interest in acting, landing a recurring role on the acclaimed APTN series Blackstone. Today, she’s an in-demand motivational speaker, and she hasn’t stopped competing in pageants -- in fact, as of two weeks ago, she's the reigning Mrs. Universe, having won the global pageant for married women. Yes, married women -- Ashley Callingbull tied the knot earlier in 2015, and is now Ashley Burnham.

Jason Momoa

Photo courtesy DC/Warner Bros

Jason Momoa

It seems likely that the world has yet to fully grasp the power of Jason Momoa. This brooding hunk has been a fixture on TV since he showed up on Baywatch in 1999. Stretches on North Shore and Stargate: Atlantis ensued, and he starred in a promising but overlooked remake of Conan The Barbarian. Then came Game of Thrones, on which he played Khal Drogo, and Momoamania kicked into a higher gear. Female fans swooned over the bare-chested, tattooed Dothraki chieftain, and mourned when he was killed off after appearing in just 10 episodes. Momoa, meanwhile, explored Native culture and issues in two subsequent projects, the TV series The Red Road and his own film Road to Paloma. He’ll be back to showing off that physique soon enough, as he’s signed on to play Aquaman in multiple movies based on the DC comics character.

Amanda Blackhorse

Photo: Ryan Red Corn

Amanda Blackhorse

This Diné mother and activist has seen more than her share of hate mail – but that’s an accepted part of the fight when you’re the lead plaintiff taking on the Washington NFL football team. The vitriol against Amanda Blackhorse surged earlier this year when the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board granted the cancellation of the Washington team’s registrations. Blackhorse was handed this torch by Harjo in 2006, when a similar trademark ruling in Harjo et al v. ProFootball Inc. was tossed because the plaintiffs waited too long to assert their rights. Harjo recruited Blackhorse, along with five others to carry on the fight, in Blackhorse et al v. ProFootball Inc. On July 8, a federal judge upheld the TTAB decision, leading Blackhorse to state, “yet again another confirmation by a federal tribunal that the R-word is offensive and disparaging to Native Americans.” In a column for ICTMN, Blackhorse wrote, “When we stand up to racism and corporate giants, we rise above, we unveil the racist institution, which has been for so long sheltered and protected.”

Lynn Valbuena

courtesy San Manuel Band of Mission Indians

Lynn Valbuena

“I have a passion to do this – it’s just what I do,” Lynn Valbuena told the San Bernardino County Sun in 2014 and that says all you need to know about the chairwoman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians. That passion has driven her through more than four decades of service to San Manuel and Indian country. She is also chairwoman of the Tribal Alliance of Sovereign Indian Nations, a trustee for the Autry National Center in L.A., a board member for the Northern Arizona University Foundation in Flagstaff and serves on the American Indian Chamber of Commerce of California advisory board. Lynn is a former elected officer for the National Indian Gaming Association and a former trustee for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. She says her mother and grandmother are her main inspirations because, “Both women were not afraid to speak up for what they thought was right.”

Gil Birmingham

Photo: AP Images

Gil Birmingham

Today, Gil Birmingham, Comanche, is best known as one of Indian country’s leading actors. His film credits include Twilight movies, Crooked Arrows, Shouting Secrets and The Lone Ranger; and he’s been a recurring character in the TV series House of Cards, Banshee and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. What’s less well known about Birmingham, though, is the path his career took before he settled on acting. He graduated from the University of Southern California with a Bachelor of Science degree, and worked for a time as a petrochemical engineer. He was also a competitive bodybuilder, and while working out at a gym was noticed by a talent scout. Thanks to his muscles, Birmingham landed a role in a video by a pop-music legend: the 1982 hit “Muscles,” by Diana Ross. He portrayed Conan for a time at Universal Studios theme park while waiting for the acting thing to take off – which it did, in 1986, with an appearance on Riptide.