Sonny Skyhawk, Sicangu Lakota, is the founder of American Indians in Film and Television, an organization founded in 1981 to "create a better understanding of issues pertaining to the Image, portrayal and depiction of the American Indian."
When Native American actors walked off the set of Adam Sandler’s Ridiculous Six movie a few weeks ago, Skyhawk knew once again that Natives' longstanding battle against stereotypes in the Hollywood entertainment industry would again be on trial in the court of public opinion.
In an interview with ICTMN, Skyhawk, who has been active in the Hollywood industry and a member of SAG-Aftra for nearly 40 years, shared his thoughts about the regard for Native culture in Hollywood over the decades, his experiences and thoughts for our people, and what needs to be done by companies such as Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions and Netflix.
You have been in the Hollywood entertainment industry for some time, what do you make of the situation with Adam Sandler’s movie the Ridiculous Six?
First of all, we have come a long way. That is, if you compare it with 50 years ago. But nevertheless, just when I think we have made some inroads, something like this Adam Sandler movie causes things to come unglued.
But people don’t realize this has gone on for the longest time, we have programs where we have talked to directors, writers and studios but they are just placating us. Because if they had listened, these things against Native people and the portrayals of horrendous native stereotypes in the industry would not be happening.
Why do you think such things continue to happen in the movie industry?
The unfortunate thing is that there is such turnover in this industry. Once you educate one person or a group of people, before you know it, they are out of there and they have been replaced. This has to be a continuous education process. Actors hang around for as long as they can, but when it comes to people who actually run this industry, the turnover is high.
With Adam Sandler and Netflix, I am trying to get sponsorships to form different panels to turn this into a positive by educating the industry and the public in general. I've been pushing here in California for a Native American 101 education symposium here at UCLA.
You’ve spent decades in the Hollywood industry trying to make positive change for Native people. What has been your process and experience?
I initiated the American Indian Actors Committee in the Screen Actors Guild in 1981. It was to address the lack of roles for Native people. It allowed us to speak to people within the Writers' Guild, the Directors' Guild and television.
Over the years, we created committees within all of the guilds to try to inspire young Indian people to become part of this Hollywood system. Whether they are writers, directors or whatever careers they want to follow in this industry, our general belief is that until we become part of the solution, we are always going to be mistreated due to the sense that we are not part of it.
If the stories do not include Native people, it's a shame. This is what I have been trying to do over the years. We want our young people to become the next generation of writers, directors and cinematographers to create the roles.
One network that has been sincerely responsive to our efforts has been the Fox network. Fox instituted a summer program where we brought 15 to 20 Native people from Indian country to Hollywood to learn at UCLA, in a sort of crash-course of career opportunities that exist in this Entertainment industry.
In all the years I was there, what I really appreciated and sought was the ability for our people to join any of these unions. There is the infamous catch-22 that you cannot become a union actor unless you do union work and you can't do any work unless you are a union actor.
We have done a lot of proactive work over the years—I spent about 30 years running the committees to provide these jobs. But I became frustrated with the Screen Actors Guild; I consistently inquired why Native people couldn't get work on these films, and SAG essentially told me they could not help. They said their job was to represent actors and their contracts with studios and networks, and that—even though they had a diversity committee guild—they were not able to get involved and could not do anything for us. In my estimation the Screen Actors Guild is more interested in collecting dues from their members then it is in helping them.
After so many years of meetings at all hours of the day and night, I got frustrated and I decided to leave, and that's when DeLanna Studi took over.
How does this episode with Adam Sandler's movie fit into the continuity of Natives' efforts to be fairly depicted in Hollywood movies?
The history of Native people being active in Hollywood in trying to create a better environment for Native actors goes back to the inception of the talkies; in fact, it goes back even further, to Thomas Edison's film in 1898.
I remember such actors as Luther Standing Bear, Jay Siverheels and Will Sampson. Jay was a First Nations Mohawk who had formed the Indian Actors' Workshop in Hollywood to coach Native actors. There was also the War Paint club, which was formed during the talkies.
When I first started my activism in Hollywood for the treatment of our people on movie sets, I was a member of the union so I was treated a certain way. But when it came to the extras, it was an entirely different thing. Extras would get paid anywhere from $10-$15 a day, and they would be shuffled from one set to the other when it was 110 degrees outside.
I remember working during a time when the extras would have to wait until everyone ate—they would just get the leftovers. I also remember everyone raising their hands to say they could ride horses because it meant a couple extra dollars—90 percent of the people fell off.
Then they started hiring people who could ride horses and painted them up and dressed them up to look like Indians. Everyone was painted including the stuntmen. I heard a story 25 years ago when I was doing a presentation at an actor’s old folks home. One elder came up to me who said he started acting during the beginning of the talkies. People would line up at three in the morning; lines would go for two or three blocks from the gate of the studio. At six AM, the gates would open. They would take their clothes and put them into a box; they would shower them in food coloring; they would get dried off with heaters and fans; and then they would get paper buckskin clothing. They went in one end and came out the other as an Indian. They would get assigned to whatever stage was filming a Western that day.
That was the way Hollywood created and manufactured Indians. This has been going on for 117 years and we're still seeing the degradation of the treatment of our people. Things haven't changed much today. In most of the productions that I remember, the wardrobe people would not worry about culture—it was about budget. They would just pull out whatever Indian clothes happened to be there. We would put them on and go out to the set. The same thing with props—they would take tipis if there were Mohawk, and anything other than teepees when there were Lakota. They never seemed to get it right because things were based only on what was available.
Now in 2015, there were tipis on the Ridiculous Six set and it was supposed to be an Apache community. It was wrong all the way around.
Do you think this latest controversy will help or hurt the Native American people who work in the entertainment industry?
I do not think this is going to hurt us. Hollywood runs purely on the instinct of getting the next movie made, and that includes getting the money to make it and getting it sold. The consensus is that this will not harm Native people. It will create a better understanding for those who are going to work with Native people. Instead of just going out there and taking things for granted.
I believe this awareness will last quite a while—until the next time.
People think that we are antiquated, and we were done away with by John Wayne, but they are in for a big surprise. When I first started this advocacy, we didn't have social media, we didn't have the Internet, and I could stand on the highest soapbox in San Francisco or on Hollywood and Vine and it would not go anywhere. In today's world, it is a whole different situation altogether.
So now what do we need to do as Native people?
Hold your head up high and stand firm as a representation as a human being. I remember as a young guy being mad as hell, and I decided I was not going to stand idly by and allow a person to continue to do things to me or anyone else that was with me. You do have to stand up. You do have to make that initial move to address the fact that you have been degraded.
Is there anything Adam Sandler or Netflix can do?
I want to see Netflix and happy Madison productions sponsor a symposium for native people to answer questions and educate so that we could have a learning curve as opposed to a hurtful curve.