We've seen an explosion of movies by and about American Indians in the last couple of years -- and that means more and better roles for Native actors. And the Native actors are rising to the challenge. They do so by standing on the shoulders of the giants who've come before -- elders like Gary Farmer and Graham Greene, and those who've walked on including Chief Dan George, Will Sampson, and Russell Means. Indian actors today play more contemporary roles, with more story; more than previous generations ever did, these skilled thespians are playing characters, not types.
And they're winning fans -- oh, boy, are they ever. In the Internet age of plentiful information, social media, and community, those who admire these actors' work (or simply admire them) are coming together in fan clubs and on Facebook pages. It's a good time to be a Native American actor, and these first five on our Hot List (there will be more) are seizing the day.
Chaske Spencer as Virgil First Raise in 'Winter in the Blood.'
His generation's Marlon Brando and Paul Newman, Lakota actor Chaske Spencer rose to prominence as Sam Uley, the leader of the Wolf Pack, the Quileute shape-shifters in four Twilight Saga films. He's now been in a string of excellent and important films about the Native experience that includes Shouting Secrets, Winter in the Blood, and The Jingle Dress. Spencer has also joined the cast of the Cinemax Banshee, for episodes that will air in 2015. Spencer overcame some serious drug and alcohol problems, and the knowledge that his life might have been very different keeps him humble. In 2013, he told an audience in Denver that he considers the Twilight gig a gift from the acting gods and a reward for getting sober.
Tatanka Means as Wolf in 'Tiger Eyes.'
The son of Lakota actor and activist Russell Means, Tatanka is an actor, standup comedian, dancer, and model. He's also a skilled horseback rider and former boxing champ -- really, there isn't much Tatanka Means can't do. In 2013 the he was a film festival star, winning Best Actor awards for his work in Tiger Eyes (adapted from the novel by Judy Blume) and the short film Derby Kings. He's been a regular on Banshee, and has a meaty part in Shangri-La Suite, due out next year. "I play a good cop gone bad, Sheriff Gingrass, set on getting his revenge and killing the main character," he told ICTMN.
Moses Brings Plenty
Moses Brings Plenty as Charlie Soap and Kimberly Guerrero as Wilma Mankiller in 'The Cherokee Word for Water.'
Moses Brings Plenty plays Charlie Soap, husband of Wilma Mankiller, in The Cherokee Word for Water, an acclaimed dramatization of the late Cherokee Nation chief. Playing Native American leaders has become a habit for "Mo," as he is called—he's played Crazy Horse on three occasions, as well as Quanah Parker. Perhaps it's in his blood—he's a direct descendant of Brings Plenty, a Lakota warrior who fought in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Moses served as narrator of Urban Rez, a documentary about the consequences of relocation that was awarded a regional Emmy. What's next? Mo doesn't know, as a general policy. "I never know what tomorrow holds," he told ICTMN. "All I know is that I have today."
Michael Spears as Bud 'One Bull' Ward in 'The Activist.'
Michael Spears got his start as a pre-teen in Dances With Wolves; he's been seen most recently in period pieces from more recent history: Winter in the Blood and The Activist. In the latter, he played an AIM activist—see what we mean by better roles? Winter in the Blood castmate Chaske Spencer praised Spears, who spent his childhood on the Lower Brule Indian Reservation, for the energy he brings to the set. "You really like it when actors can come in and do that because some days you just can’t get there," Spencer told ICTMN. "And then when you have someone come in like that, it helps you pick up your own game." Michael is also a model, and plays in a drum group, Bear Canyon, with his brother Eddie.
Kiowa Gordon as Junior Van Der Veen on 'The Red Road.'
As Embry Call in the Twilight Saga movies, Gordon was boyish, even pretty -- and he was all of 18. Now 24 and still fresh-faced, the Hualapai actor has used that Twilight fame to its fullest. He can be seen in both The Lesser Blessed and Drunktown's Finest, two highly acclaimed films with Native storylines, and his crowning achievement is The Red Road, a series on Sundance TV in which he plays a major role alongside Native Hawaiian actor Jason Momoa. The Red Road has been renewed for a second season, although that may not be great news for Gordon's character Junior Van Der Veen, who was last seen being hauled off by police after committing a murder.