HOLLYWOOD, Calif. - Throughout the past decade it seems only three Native actresses have garnered worldwide acclaim; Irene Bedard for her animated voice of "Pocahontas" (1995), Tantoo Cardinal for her string of supporting roles from "Dances with Wolves" (1990) to "Smoke Signals" (1998) and Elaine Miles for her secretary role in TV's "Northern Exposure" (1990-95). A crop of beautiful actresses followed ready to stake their claim in film and television if only in supporting or guest starring roles. They include Kimberly Norris Guerrero in "Seinfeld" (1993), Kateri Walker in "Stolen women, Captured hearts" (1997) and Jade Herrera in "The Doe Boy" (2001). Today several new actresses have emerged with a number of high profile TV projects including Delanna Studi in the ABC TV mini-series "Dreamkeeper" and Alex Rice in the PBS murder mystery "Coyote Waits." Both are busy working and it looks like they might stay around for a long time to come.
For the past 11 years Sheila Tousey, Menominee, has been a hard-working actress whose work seems to always go unnoticed. She burst onto the scene back in 1992 with the lead female role in "Thunderheart" starring Val Kilmer and Graham Greene. She followed with TV projects, voice over narration and the Sam Shepard film "Silent Tongue" (1994). That year Tousey also returned to the University of New Mexico to direct her first play "An Evening at the Warbonnet." It may have been her last go at directing but Tousey would always return to the stage where she learned her craft as an actress. She performed on and off Broadway as well as in regional theater.
She kept working in TV and film with "The Way West" (1995) and that same year in Clive Barker's "Lord of Illusions." Then came her strongest role in four years, with the HBO drama "Grand Avenue" (1996). At the time, Irene Bedard was getting all the publicity over the groundbreaking Native drama. Entertainment Weekly magazine said, "The real star here is Sheila Tousey ?." They were right as Tousey stole the movie. As the troubled Mollie with two teenage daughters, she tries to live in the inner city while desperately holding onto her Native culture. Many believe Tousey deserved an Emmy nomination for her work.
Throughout 1997, Tousey worked on "All the Winters That Have Been," "Sparkler" and "Song of Hiawatha." Then, she landed a role in the suspense horror film "Ravenous" (1999) starring Guy Pierce and Robert Carlyle. Even though it was an unglamorous role with Tousey dressed in rags, she played the part with an unmistakable beauty and strength.
In 2000, Tousey went back to the stage working again with writer and director Sam Shepard in "The Late Henry Moss." The play had a powerhouse cast including Sean Penn, Nick Nolte and Woody Harrelson. Tousey was the only female cast member and Shepard said, "She's a great actress and has a lot of guts. She will hold her own with the guys." That same year Tousey appeared in "Backroads" and "Coming to light: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indians" on PBS.
In 2001, Tousey helped co-produce an Independent film called "Christmas in the Clouds," a comedy starring Graham Greene, M. Emmett Walsh and Tousey as Mary the manager of a Native-run ski lodge. Unrecognizable at first, because of a huge hairstyle, she provided wonderful comic flair among a vast Native ensemble. The film went to the Sundance festival and screened across the country winning numerous awards. It was even screened at the White House for fire fighters after the disaster of Sept. 11.
Tousey received the role of Emma Leaphorn in the PBS murder mystery "Skinwalkers" in 2002. The First Americans in the Arts honored her with a best supporting actress award for that film last February Her latest television work is as Judge Danielle Larson on the NBC cop drama "Law & Order SVU (Special Victims Unit),"a reoccurring role she has held since 1999. She even appeared in the original "Law & Order" back in 1990 as Mrs. Vilardi.
Tousey appeared two more times as Emma Leaphorn in "Coyote Waits" and "Thief of Time" on PBS. This Christmas you can see Tousey in the ambitious ABC mini-series "Dreamkeeper." She portrays Janine who is concerned about her father who wants to take a trip to the All Nations pow wow in Albuquerque. She was nominated for best supporting actress for that role with the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco. However, she lost to co-star Delanna Studi for the same mini-series.
It is clear that someday Tousey will be honored for her underrated work as an actress, but for now her acting speaks for itself and we hear her loud and clear.