If You Need an Indian... Actor and Artist Richard Ray Whitman Is Your Man

He was at Wounded Knee in 1973, he's been an artist for 45 years, and he just won the American Indian Motion Picture Award for Supporting Actor.

If you need a Native actor, if you are desperate for authenticity or ‘gravitas’, if you are an “indie film project” which translates as “low budget”, if you need an Indian who’s been there, wherever it is you are in Indian country, then you can’t go wrong with calling on Richard Ray Whitman.

Richard is Yuchi/Creek living in Oklahoma City and has had small but important roles in recent Native films, such as Drunktown’s Finest for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Award at the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco. He’s also happy about having been in what many people consider the Best Native Movie of 2013, Winter in the Blood, directed by Alex and Andrew Smith, from the novel by James Welch. This indie film has received good reviews but has not been seen in wide release.

Justus Gibson, Choctaw, poses for Eagle's "Real Life Indian" photo project. Photo courtesy Viki Eagle.

Richard says, “What I do isn’t Hollywood, it's work. I’m still a starving artist. As an artist it’s just another way to work, to keep working. Hey, I’m kinda desperate as an artist and maybe these film projects and directors are desperate, what with low budgets and time issues.” That’s exactly how he got role of a Navajo medicine man in Sydney Freeland’s award-winning film, Drunktown’s Finest. Finding Whitman was last minute and an act of desperation and faith by the director and producers; but for Richard, the test was speaking in Navajo. Freeland needed someone for the pivotal part to connect with the audience and it worked out well for both of them. Whitman got the call, got to the location and “…went up to a group of Indian men on set, we talked and turns out we knew some of the same people, Road Men, then we talked about the movie and turns out the director is his daughter.”

And that’s kind of the way it is for Richard Ray, he’s been around, he knows people.

'Drunktown's Finest' director Sydney Freeland on the set of the film with Richard Ray Whitman. Photo by Vicki Monks.

Whitman goes back over 25 years counting film projects and movie roles, with two good recent reviews in the New York Times—some actors may never get that. Nicolas Rapold had good things to say about him in Drunktown’s Finest and Stephen Holden had a long review of Barking Water, an early film by Sterlin Harjo. Harjo wrote the script and wanted Richard Ray and Casey Camp-Horinek as the older couple. It worked out because they ended up as husband and wife again in Winter in the Blood. Of course Whitman is the frozen ghost of a father to Chaske Spencer and is slowly dying and saying his farewells in Barking Water. Harjo wanted to do Winter in the Blood, but Whitman said most people in the business knew the film would be a tough project; tricks of the mind, surreal and magical are phrases used to describe Welch’s writing. And then Richard will tell you that the Smith Brothers who did Winter in the Blood, had also lost their father and they all became friends with the Welch family, so James became a father figure and the film a labor of love.

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The exciting news is he just wrapped another film role, the new movie from Scottish director Steven Lewis Simpson titled, Neither Wolf nor Dog, a highly anticipated project from the novel by Kent Nerburn set in Pine Ridge in 1994. Nerburn’s trilogy of novels (the other two titles are The Wolf at Twilight and The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo) is loved by Natives and non-Natives alike. Nerburn (who also wrote the screenplay) says the novels are non-fiction, narratives collected from Native people he knows and interviewed. Simpson has previously worked with Native actors and themes on Rez Bomb andThunder-Being Nation. Both these men have built up some trust with Native People, Nerburn lives in Bemidji, MN, where he wrote the books that changed his life (To Walk the Red Road, and, We Chose to Remember) working with Red Lake Chippewa students; and Simpson working in Pine Ridge for the last 15 years (filming Thunder-Being Nation took 13 years).

NDN car pool: David Bald Eagle and Richard Ray Whitman shooting 'Neither Wolf Nor Dog.' Photo courtesy Steven Louis Simpson.

Richard speaks fondly of David Bald Eagle, the elder turned actor who plays the main character. The novel is sub-titled Down Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder, and the Elder teaches the Author (actor Christopher Sweeney plays Nerburn) quite a few things, often with humor and mostly about the author’s misconceptions about Indian People and their ways. John Trudell was offered a role but his busy schedule couldn’t fit in the Indie-film constraints. So again Whitman is considered, and it is his body of work in small roles through recent Native films that got him the part of Grover. And of course he knows people at Pine Ridge from 41 years ago at Wounded Knee, which amazed Simpson.

Simpson searched wide for the Elder character and found David Bald Eagle right in the middle of the story at Pine Ridge. Dave is the character and the story; his own life experiences over 95 years make him perfect for the part. Simpson says Dave was left for dead at Normandy on D-Day, counting for one of his many lives. Simpson hopes to deliver a great movie for everything that David Bald Eagle and Kent Nerburn gave him to work with.

David Bald Eagle and Richard Ray Whitman cruising down the highway in 'Neither Wolf Nor Dog.' Photo courtesy Steven Louis Simpson.

Whitman’s first role was 45 years ago in IAIA’s first film productions, as the “urban Indian” in 1969’s Red Reflections, a cultural exchange project. This lead to the establishment of a Community Film Workshop, a 60’s style co-operative usually set-up in urban areas in response to “the changing times”. He saw Vincent Price come every year to award the best Creative Writers and even read some student poems on the Johnny Carson Show. Whitman was impressed by stage and theater and this opened his perspective to all the arts. He joined the Indian Club, then got kicked out of Indian Club because some students went to a “protest rally” in Albuquerque during an NCAI gathering. Allan Houser saved him by showing up at the hearing and said that all his best students were getting kicked out for disciplinary reasons. That ended it. Then along came George Burdeau, who headed up the Community Film Workshop and Richard spoke fondly of those times. Burdeau was an influence on a lot of students, his CFW was separate from IAIA because there was friction with the BIA part of the still new IAIA.

Photo collage by Richard Ray Whitman, courtesy the artist.

Whitman’s been making art all this time, in shows with NMAI, the Venice Biennale, Honor the Earth, ArtTrain; in magazines and books and as an actor and film-maker. He was at Wounded Knee, as seen in the artwork done for an FBI Surveillance exhibit in Santa Fe; he’s known for photography like his Street Chiefs series, his Indian DNA series, and is currently working on some Alberta Tar-Sands photo-collages. He spent time in France doing art and film, and had parts in early movies like War Party, Missionary Man, American Indian Graffiti, Lakota Woman, The Only Good Indian, Four Sheets to the Wind, We Shall Remain, The Cherokee Word for Water, and several more projects large and small.

Suzan Shown Harjo and Richard Ray Whitman. Photo by Vicki Monks

He jokes of a reference to him as an “aging activist turned actor”, but we’ve seen Russell Means and John Trudell start there too. And once you talk to him you can tell, Richard Ray has seen a lot of things, met a lot of people, he’s been there, done it or knew someone who did it. Heart is a word that comes up from people who know him, strong heart, deep heart, deep experiences, a deep voice and a ton of gravitas.

Note from Alex: Steven Simpson and Richard Ray Whitman would like to acknowledge their host family, Todd & Carolyn of the Obryan Ranch, Kyle, SD; and Steven's longtime Kolas', Milo Yellow Hair, Richard Moves Camp, Leonard Little Finger. ICTMN readers can get a 15% discount on any of Steven's films at his online store, inyoentertainment.com/shop, by entering the coupon code ICTMN15.

Alex Jacobs
Santa Fe NM