Becoming nationally known in fashion or film is uncommon for Indigenous people. Three people who have “made it,” were in a panel conversation at the First Alaskans Institute’s Elders and Youth Convention in Anchorage, Alaska, on Oct. 17.
Actor Martin Sensmeier, Tlingit and Koyukon Athabascan, played one of the lead heroes in the 2016 remake of “The Magnificent Seven.”
Host Chalyee Éesh Richard Peterson, Haida and Tlingít, said when he saw the film he and a group of friends broke out into applause at the scene where Sensmeier’s character, a warrior, introduced himself in Comanche, then in the Tlingit language.
“I can tell you it was because as a Tlingit man, I'd never dreamt that I'd see that,” Peterson said. “Where a character came out and introduced themselves in our language. And it really emphasizes: representation matters.”
Sensmeier has also acted in numerous films and episodic TV series such as “Yellowstone,” “Wind River” and “Westworld.” Next he’ll star in “Bright Path: The Jim Thorpe Story,” a film about the first Native American to win an Olympic gold medal.
Getting to star in Hollywood films took years of work and determination through sometimes tough times, Sensmeier said.
“There's a lot of times where I've wanted to give up on this, in pursuit of (other) work. Even after ‘Magnificent Seven,’ you know, it's been a grind. Nothing's come easy to me.”
Sensmeier said he took his first acting class in 2007 and booked his first role in 2013. “It was really hard, and at times I would get an audition like once every four months,” he said. “There's been times where it's broke me. I had to rebuild myself and, you know, put things back together.”
He advised the youth in the audience: “The one thing that's temporary is how you feel right now. It's always going to change. It's going to ebb and flow. You're going to have ups. You're going to have downs. You're going to have tough times, easy times.”
He said some of his hardest times were when he was between 17 and 20 years old. “I struggled with depression the most,” he said. “Even had suicidal thoughts myself at one time.”
Determination and following his passion gradually ended those harmful thoughts, Sensmeier said.
Youth is the time to explore career options, he said. “It's very rare that you find out exactly what you want to do when you're 17.”
He said if you begin to pursue and fulfill your passion, "you realize like, Oh man, the universe is gonna get out of your way. The universe starts to move outta your way."
Model and activist Quannah Chasinghorse-Potts, Gwich’in Athabascan and Sicangu-Oklala Lakota, has been a Vogue cover girl, and walked runways in New York and Europe. She's been on the covers of Vogue Mexico, Vogue Japan, V Magazine, and was listed in the 2020 Teen Vogue list of Top 21 under 21.
She “stole the show” at the 2021 New York Met Gala. However the reality differs from the photos and descriptions, Chasinghorse-Potts said.
“The pictures, the people, it's a lot,” she said. “You know, a lot of the time the glitz and the glam doesn't feel like glitz and glam. It feels exhausting.”
She remembered walking the red carpet at the Met Gala, surrounded by cameras and celebrities. However, the photographers would yell at Chasinghorse-Potts to get out of the way, so they could get better shots of the likes of Kylie Jenner.
“I just didn't feel like I belonged there,” Chasinghorse-Potts said. “No one wanted me there. They didn't want to take pictures of me. And I was like, ‘Okay, that's fine.’ So I walked up the stairs and when I got to the top, this one photographer that I had worked with before took a picture and said, ‘You own this whole space. Claim it. It’s yours.’”
Chasinghorse-Potts said she posed for the photographer and envisioned her ancestors walking behind her, with her up those stairs. She thought about where she was, Lenapehoking, that's Lenape lands in New York.
“Even just recognizing whose land we're on whenever we travel or wherever we go, that made me regain my confidence and power,” Chasinghorse-Potts said. “And I walked through those doors feeling like myself again.”
Indigenous people have a deep history in the land and therefore a deep investment that can give strength through culture, she said.
“We belong in every single aspect of the conversation, whether it be climate policy to land protection, to modeling, in every single doorway that we walk in, we belong in,” she said.
“When I work knowing that my community is with me, that makes me proud and it makes me strong and it makes me feel powerful. It makes me feel seen and it makes me feel like my work isn't for nothing,” she said.
D'Pharoah Woon-A-Tai, who is from Canada, acts in the FX-on-Hulu comedy-drama series “Reservation Dogs,” which has received a Peabody Award, two Independent Spirit Awards, and nominations for Critics Choice TV and other awards. The American Film Institute named it one of the best TV programs of 2021.
Woon-A-Tai, Oji-Cree Anishinaabe, is known for his role as Bear Smallhill, one of the four main leads in “Reservation Dogs,” which just completed its second season in September.
Woon-A-Tai said with all due respect and appreciation to FX, it’s important to remember that the industry is highlighting Indigenous people because it’s profitable. “They didn't want to give us the torch, you know what I mean? They didn't want to pass it along. They had to do it because it's in style now.”
In the 2010s and earlier, the only Indigenous content out there was about trauma, Woon-A-Tai said. “It was all about boarding schools. It's all about residential schools. And that's what's sold. They wanted to pity us. They wanted to find a reason to help the Indian, and never for us to empower ourselves.”
“Reservation Dogs” is a comedy that features all-Indigenous writers, directors and most of the cast, Woon-A-Tai said. It’s one of a handful of recent shows to feature Indigenous stories, actors and helmed by Native talent, including "Rutherford Falls" and "Dark Winds."
“And what's beautiful, what I hope for in the future is that we invade every single area of film and not just be called Native film,” Woon-A-Tai said.
He said he hopes the day comes soon when Indigenous characters are not described as “Native superheroes.” Or Indigenous romance movies are not described as “Native romance.”
“We’re superheroes. It’s a romance,” Woon-A-Tai said. “It's the same thing with being an actor. Like, you don't wanna be the Native American actor, you wanna be an actor. You wanna go for any role.”
First Alaskan Institute’s Elders and Youth Conference wrapped up Oct. 19. The 2022 annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention is Oct. 20-22.
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