Hollywood diversity for the American Indian


I came to Hollywood five years ago in 1997 from Albuquerque, N.M. It wasn't an easy thing to do and my path to California has been one long struggle to make it, to be seen and heard.

I never gave a thought about diversity until I began to go on auditions. Casting agents told me to let my hair down and strip half-naked before them. This is the image Hollywood has had of American Indians for over 100 years. That had become tiring for me, because it's not why I wanted to be an actor. So, two years later my agent encouraged me to cut off my long hair. It was the best thing I ever did because I began to audition for other ethnic roles. My resume had expanded.

The Indian stereotype was something I had to distance myself from. But, it is still there for other Indian men in those auditions, and it is evident that we have not come very far in mainstream Hollywood. That image of "savage warriors" and "Indian maidens" still mirrors the modern Indian filmmaker.

Hollywood did take notice of the American Indian if only for a glimpse throughout the 1990s. Yet, it only encouraged that image and did very little to change it. By the end of the decade only independent films became the voice for the modern Indian.

"Dances with Wolves" (1990) opened many doors for us, whether we want to believe it or not. We became visible to the world for the first time as a good decent race. That film won seven Academy Awards and a place in the history of Indians seen through the eyes of a non-Indian. That same year Director David Lynch brought "Twin Peaks" to ABC television and along with it came Indian artist/actor Michael Horse. He was a regular and it was fun to watch. Sadly, that show lasted only one TV season. Also, CBS television added a mid-season replacement called "Northern Exposure" (1990). Set in Alaska but filmed in the Northwest and Canada it became a highly rated TV show. It introduced Elaine Miles to us as Marilyn Whirlwind. She was the only supporting cast member who was Indian. She became an overnight TV celebrity. Yet, over the years she has received criticism, especially in appearance-obsessed Hollywood, because of her weight. She had unfairly become a stigma for Indian women, posed by the ever-present stereotypical question, "Are all Indian women overweight?" But who among us can deny her delightful performances in the series.

"Northern Exposure" ran on CBS for an impressive six years (1990-95). It was seen around the world. In addition, it won seven Emmy awards, including one for Best Drama in 1993. It also introduced modern Indian actors as guest stars. It was a breath of fresh air and provided a positive outlook.

From 1992 through 1997, Hollywood turned out the stereotypical films that tried to be accurate towards Indian history: "Thunderheart" (1992), "Last of the Mohicans" (1992), "Geronimo" (1994) and "Pocahontas"(1995). On cable television, it got worse with TNT's own "Geronimo," "Crazy Horse" and "Tecumseh." Let's not forget the terrible "Stolen Women" on CBS.

Through that period there were only a few productions that received critical acclaim. TNT's "Lakota Woman" (1996), which starred Irene Bedard, garnered her a Golden Globe nomination as best actress. I believe that it is a first for an Indian woman. Then, there was the wonderful HBO drama "Grand Avenue" (1996) starring Sheila Tousey, which brought us the struggle of urban Indians in today's society. On film, "Maverick" (1995) brought us a comedy performance by actor Graham Greene. It was the first high-profile film that gave an Indian actor a chance to have an equal performance alongside Mel Gibson. It was a box office winner and a critical favorite.

By the end of the decade independent films came to the forefront with "Smoke Signals" (1998). It won critical raves coming out of the Sundance Film Festival and became a box office hit. It was written, directed and performed by an all-Indian cast.

That film kicked off a frenzy of independent productions that were made by Indians. Robert Redford went as far as to support us by creating film workshops at Sundance in Utah.

With independent films we have come a long way toward portraying American Indians positively. Today, Sundance has premiered wonderful films including "Christmas in the Clouds," "The Doe Boy" and "Skins." Also, actor Eric Schweig took a huge leap into the Gay film genre with "Big Eden." It was very daring on his part, but it paid off and won him critical raves and awards.

Yet, Hollywood has not caught on to the modern American Indian. The main reason is that Indians account for only two percent of the nation's population. Therefore, who wants to see that fraction in the big theatre multiplexes across the country. It's a tough row to hoe, because recently a high profile film called "Windtalkers" is bombing at the box office. It has a big star in the name of Nicolas Cage attached to it, along with Adam Beach. By Hollywood standards it just isn't a moneymaker.

We are trying to change an industry that is youth oriented and run by stereotypes. We are not alone either. African-Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish and East Indians are fighting the same battle.

Diversity is opening its doors though. NBC and the Oneida Indian Nation produced an across-America talent search for comedians, actors and writers last year. The winners went to New York and performed for NBC executives and casting agents. Producer Sonny Skyhawk and Dan Jones also launched their Sky Dancer TV production company in 2001. Their first project is called "The World of American Indian Dance." Sonny has also begun a diversity campaign for American Indians by sitting in on auditions for TV and Films as a consultant. He wants to be there to ensure that Indians are portrayed correctly and not exploited. I met him at an audition for ABC last spring. That was a reassuring plus.

The Southern California Indian Center in Los Angeles is also launching a multi-media program in partnership with Torres Martinez Tribal TANF (Temporary assistance to needy families). First, actor Floyd Westerman and the Indian Center came up with the idea for a training curriculum that would give Indians a chance to produce, write and direct their own stories. What came out of these partnerships is the EM2 2002 Entertainment Multi-media project. Classes will begin this year and it is a hopeful start for Indian filmmaking.

We still have a long way to go. The struggle for diversity for the American Indian in Hollywood is a battle that will continue long into the future.

Roscoe Pond, Umatilla/Nez Perce, is a member of the Screen Actors Guild who has worked in Hollywood for five years. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Theater Arts from Portland State University and was a member of the Daystar Dance Company from 1990 to 1998. His career in the movies has greatly improved, he says, since he cut his hair and can now go after Mexican and Japanese roles.