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A Conversation with Tokala Clifford, Pine Ridge Film Star in Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River

Tokala Clifford from Pine Ridge says working on Wind River by Taylor Sheridan ‘was more like a family’ thanks to Gil Birmingham, Graham Greene and more
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Tokala Clifford has worked on some high profile projects, with roles in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Into the West and Valley of the Gods. He also played the role of Cameahwait on Lewis and Clark miniseries for HBO. But most recently, Tokala Black Elk Clifford, an Oglala Lakota actor from Pine Ridge, has grabbed considerable attention for his role as the violent drug-addict Sam Littlefeather in the gripping and realistic thriller by Taylor Sheridan, Wind River.

Wind River poster, produced by the Weinstein Company.

Wind River poster, produced by the Weinstein Company.

See ICMN's related article: Movie Review: Taylor Sheridan’s ‘Wind River’ is Gripping, Realistic and Beautifully-Crafted

Tokala Clifford started with supporting roles in Skins (2002) and Dreamkeeper (2003). His roles have increasingly diversified since then as he won the Best Leading Actor award at the CineFashion Film Festival in Beverly Hills, California for his Mayan Language portrayal of the first Mayan King "K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo" in Manuel Albarran's short film, Myth (2016).

Tokala Clifford represented the Oglala Sioux Tribe before the U.S. Senate at age 13, and has worked with Lakota youth for language and culture programs. He currently resides in Los Angeles, California.

Tokala Clifford took some time to speak with ICMN about his role on Wind River, whose actions with Elizabeth Olsen and Graham Greene’s characters change the momentum of the film. He also told as a bit about himself and about working in the industry as a Native actor.

How you would best describe Tokala Clifford as well as your community?

I’m proud to be Oglala Lakota from Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and to have attended the Wounded Knee District School. I started acting with the film Skins in 2002, as kind of a bad guy, so here I am a bad guy again. But that’s also where I first worked with Graham Greene. He’s such an expert actor but also a great guy to just sit down and talk to. Graham is all about getting into character. So sometimes you couldn’t talk to him, you know. He told me, you get into the character and you get into role and then discover what you need to do for the role.

So over the years every time I met him, he’d give me another little hint about acting. So on Wind River, I expected him to give me some more advice. But all he said pretty much was, ‘You got it, bro, you’re a good actor, now just get great.’

My father was Gerald Clifford, he worked for the Mni Wiconi Water Project that brought in clean drinking water to Western South Dakota, and for the Black Hills Steering Committee that tried to settle the Black Hills Claim. Like they say when something is hard, it takes an act of congress, so he lobbied senators to save our sacred mountains and build an economy. It was a very political situation and they didn’t win the settlement. But it was important work for our people and I feel like I’ll never be able to live up to what past generations accomplished.

Charlotte Black Elk is my mother and her family are Black Elk holy men. I can see the beauty in our people and culture, now that I live in Los Angeles. I see the connections that made us who and what we are and how much was protected and kept alive for the next generations.

Do you get to reach out to your community?

There is a BIA school near Gallup, New Mexico and they made a special request asking me to come down and talk to the students. These kids were so enthusiastic and I saw these pictures on the walls of Native actors and heroes, all living people.

So I asked the kids who their heroes were. And they all said Geronimo, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull. I told them that we can no longer live that life anymore, we can only live today, so cheer for your heroes now and don’t just look back.

Some picked up that message and made me their hero and kept in contact with me and became that wind behind my back pushing me forward. So I just want to shout out and say thank you to those Gallup School kids who believed in me. I learned to fight for roles, to keep climbing up, and to never give up after that. The circle keeps going, we give it back and send it forth, just never give up.

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How was it working with Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene, Gil Birmingham, Julia Jones, Martin Sensmeier on Wind River? That is a lot of talent in one place.

Yes, such a talented group of people. Just being able to watch Jeremy Renner prepare was special. Elizabeth Olsen was so helpful with everything. You know, the feeling on the set and with the film, it was just as it should’ve been, especially Graham Greene, being able to watch him again, so wonderful and powerful.

When I’m on a set for a film, there’s a camaraderie with everybody wanting to work together. But with this group on Wind River, it was more like a family, the power of the project showed through. Every member contributed to this powerful energy to push us all forward. I am honored.

Elizabeth Olsen and Graham Greene on the set of Wind River.

Elizabeth Olsen and Graham Greene on the set of Wind River.

Wind River touches on issues regarding Wind River Reservation and other Native and rural communities such as drugs, lack of opportunity, poverty, oil & gas company man-camps, sex trafficking, VAWA and MMIW. How do think these issues were dealt with in the film?

I feel that things are changing for the better and we are understanding ourselves now. My great great grandfather Nick Black Elk said, ‘minds are waking up, they tried to take away our language and culture, and turn us into the man they wanted in boarding schools. But even if that era is gone, the program remains, it’s still there, trying to crush us inside. We are fighting a war of ideas now.’ Thinking of Black Elk’s dream, I am in the middle and my great great grandchildren will be the seventh generation. That is the dream and the change.

Taylor Sheridan is the great storyteller of this generation. He reminds me of some old time Indian storytellers, they see all these things, but when they tell the story, they don’t destroy the pace, they keep and build the power. You see this movie, you see the power of the story, you don’t realize it, but it is very subtle.

Can you tell us about your character?

My character, Sam Littlefeather, is a meth addict and a violent person, and I may not know that character directly, but I’ve seen violence and cruelty and often it was not on the Rez but in the city. The reality of these issues are actual messages inside the frame of the story. If you overdo it, there can be too much power in the audience’s face and they can get turned off. Real good storytelling will allow the viewer to take the journey and see all these things without being overwhelmed by one part of the story.

You have to walk the knife's edge walk as an artist, to go the very point but you can’t lose the power of the story. We have the power to project ourselves as natural human beings. In other films, there can be bad acting, pacing, or cinematography and you lose details and the story. Wind River never does that. When I read Wind River, I actually teared up and felt I was there, I felt it was real.

Reach out to Tokala Clifford on Facebook -

From the Wind River film site:

WIND RIVER is a chilling thriller that follows a rookie FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) who teams up with a local game tracker with deep community ties and a haunted past (Jeremy Renner) to investigate the murder of a local girl on a remote Native American Reservation in the hopes of solving her mysterious death. Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, WIND RIVER also stars Gil Birmingham, Jon Bernthal, Julia Jones, Kelsey Asbille, and James Jordan.

And of course Tokala Clifford.