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Vincent Schilling
Indian Country Today

Saginaw Grant’s acting career began as a writer conducting a writer’s seminar in the Bay Area of California. One of his clients asked him if he wanted to be in a commercial. The client asked Grant what type of acting he had done in commercials or on stage. Grant replied, “Only a reindeer in a Christmas play in the first grade.”

“I had to believe in myself that I could do it, and I did,” Grant, a citizen of the Sac and Fox Nation, said in a Native Trailblazers interview.

Grant did the local commercial in the San Francisco area. It led to another. Then a filmmaker saw his commercial and asked him if he wanted to go to Hollywood and act in a film.

“That’s how I got started. I had no idea I was going to become an actor,” he said.

Within a few years, Grant established himself as the go-to Native American actor throughout his career, having met and interacted with a plethora of industry professionals.

Grant, a hereditary chief of the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma, died on July 28, 2021, at 85 years old. The actor died peacefully in his sleep at a private care facility in Hollywood, California, according to Lani Carmichael, Grant’s publicist and longtime friend.

“He loved both Oklahoma and L.A.,” Carmichael said. “He made his home here as an actor, but he never forgot his roots in Oklahoma. He remained a fan of the Sooner Nation.”

A public post on the actor’s page announced his death. “It’s with heavy hearts we announce a warrior has been called home. Saginaw Morgan Grant, the hereditary chief and medicine man of the Sac & Fox tribe …”

The Facebook post received thousands of shares and comments including numerous photos of Grant, who had traveled extensively throughout Indian Country reaching out to youth and veterans through speaking engagements and awards ceremonies.

Grant was born in Pawnee, Oklahoma on July 20, 1936, to Sarah and Austin Grant, Sr. at the Pawnee Indian Hospital. He was raised on a farm in Cushing, Oklahoma, and had two brothers and a sister. He was also raised with strong Native traditional influences as his grandfathers, Kirvin (a traditional medicine man) and Saginaw (after whom he was named) both taught him customs, culture and the importance of ceremony.

The social post also cited Grant’s love for traditional gatherings: “Saginaw was always happiest at pow wow sharing the love, energy and tradition of his people. Watching the children grow in the traditions of their ancestors and to share in the spirits of dance to the beat of the drum brought him both joy and peace.”

Grant was a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and had attended the Ponca Military Academy and served in the Korean war. He was a longtime active participant in the National Gathering of American Indian Veterans.

In the 1980s Grant began acting and in the decades following, Grant has appeared in a significant number of films and television programs to include “The Lone Ranger” with Johnny Depp, “The World’s Fastest Indian” with Anthony Hopkins and the controversial Adam Sandler film, “The Ridiculous Six.”

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Grant also appeared on several television programs to include “Breaking Bad” the CBS series “Harts of the West,” “Nash Bridges,” “My Name is Earl,” “American Horror Story” and “Shameless.”

In addition to his work as an actor, Grant also appeared at many speaking engagements. He said in an interview on Native Trailblazers radio that young people were his focus in terms of sharing traditions and culture.

“I enjoy talking to young people and to all people,” said Grant in the interview. ”I listened to my grandma and grandpas. I think that's what young people should do today, is listen. Retain something of what was said to you. Our grandmas and grandpas didn’t lie to us when they told us how to live their lives. They didn’t lie to us because they wanted us to be successful, they wanted us to be productive, they wanted us to be happy.”

A highlight of Grant’s career was his role as Chief Big Bear in “The Lone Ranger” where he worked with Johnny Depp.

Grant says that part was among the favorites in his career as he detailed in an 2013 Indian Country Today interview.

“This role, ‘The Lone Ranger.’ I really like the part I played, even though I do get killed; I probably have died in a lot of movies I’ve been in. I probably hold the record there. Floyd [Red Crow] Westerman and I kind of argued about this. I said, ‘I died more times than you do.’ That’s just the way it is, I guess. I’ve been very fortunate because people seem to like my look, because it’s an ‘Indian’ look. I’m not a star or anything, but I’ve been able to stick here and have work. And I’ve been becoming pretty well known – especially since people found out that I’m in ‘The Lone Ranger.’ They’ve really paid attention to me now. I feel good about it,” Grant said.

(Related: A Conversation with Saginaw Grant, Chief Big Bear from 'The Lone Ranger')

After “The Lone Ranger” Grant even got his own Chief Big Bear lego character.

Grant continued to work with iconic actors throughout his career to include Anthony Hopkins and others. Having met Chadwick Boseman, Grant posted to Instagram about the late actor. “May Creator Bless the loved ones of Chadwick Boseman. He has joined the Creator. May we celebrate his life, his artistic contributions in Black Panther (a movie I very much enjoyed) and the beautiful conversation I had with this young man.”

Perhaps most importantly, Grant said in another Indian Country Today interview is that it was important for Native actors and actresses to pursue their dreams.

“We have fine actors, fine actresses who have done some good work, but I don’t think that we have enough yet. I think that we belong in this field of work and we can get there. It may take a little bit longer, but there’s a need for it, this Hollywood movie making and everything. We found a place here. There [are] people like Graham Greene, Adam Beach. There are a lot of our people who’ve made and live good lives and who help people. That’s one thing about our Native people: We’re always willing to help someone. I constantly say that we could’ve easily wiped out Columbus when he first came to this country. We had the numbers, but we were willing to help. We were willing to give someone a chance. But I don’t look back and relive something that happened in the past. There’s nothing we can do to change it. But I can only make it better for our people.”

According to the Facebook post, Grant was survived by “survived by his daughter Lisa Grant, daughter-In-law Dodie L Kent, grandchildren Cassandra and Vanessa Kent and Della Grant, and great-grandchildren Joseph Soutter, Sherry Jo Soutter, Stephen Soutter, and Micah Little Crow, his brothers Austin JR and Francis SR, Publicist Lani Melisa Carmichael, his adopted son Rick Mora, a soon to be grandson Chayton Mora, adopted daughter Heather Everette, and his many nieces, nephews and cousins in Oklahoma.”

A memorial for Grant will be held in the Los Angeles area, but details haven’t been finalized, Carmichael said.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.