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The Untold Stories of Wes Studi, an Overlooked Native American Icon

Wes points out that the cast does include Tatanka Means, the son of his old Last of the Mohicans costar Russell Means, and he’s encouraged by that sense of continuity. As for the industry as a whole, he stresses that there are so many more Native Americans involved in filmmaking than there were when he started out. “And now,” he says, “they’re able to write from their Native mindset.”

Sydney Freeland, who worked on Reservation Dogs with Sterlin Harjo and directed multiple episodes of Peacock’s Rutherford Falls, a comedy about an upstate New York town with a large Native community, credits Wes with part of that shift. “He laid the groundwork for a lot of the stuff that people are doing now,” she says. “There’s a lot of roles coming up, but they’re contemporary roles. They’re not period pieces. It’s not ‘We’re going to make a Hollywood Western with cowboys and Indians.’ That’s due in large part to the foundation that he’s put out there for everybody.” Freeland described a moment on the set of Reservation Dogs when she looked back and saw all these familiar Native faces. “These are people whose couches I’ve slept on,” she says. “A Native showrunner, cast, and crew.” It was what Wes had been dreaming of ever since he first wandered into Los Angeles, more than 30 years ago.

I’ve been thinking about the state of Native acting a lot this year. The TV rights for the adaptation of my novel were dropped by HBO, and I had a feeling that it was because there were no stars to cast, too few known faces to sell the show. This was wrong, of course, because then along came Rutherford Falls, the first proper Native TV show in this country, with a largely Native cast and Native writers room, and Reservation Dogs is on the way.

But most of all, it was wrong because we still have Wes Studi, our lodestar, blazing the trail ahead with his brilliance. I was recently asked to write a short film for a production company out of Oakland. I’d never written a screenplay before, but I did start dreaming up a script, written for Wes Studi specifically. Something that would showcase all of his talents, as a charmer, a humorist, a speaker of several languages. He’ll be an older Native man traveling across the American landscape, visiting A.A. meetings along the way. He’ll be a poet who published his first book in his 70s, after a lifetime of addiction. He’ll rob banks with handwritten notes. His twin brother will have died recently, and the book will be coming out at the end of his trip. Something like that. I’m probably not the one to do it. But someone else should. Write it with Wes in mind. With all that he can do, and with all that it could mean to have him star in a film everyone sees. Well, obviously not everyone. Just enough of an audience, which is all we’ve ever asked for.

Tommy Orange is the author of the novel ‘There There,’ a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. This is his first article for GQ.

A version of this story originally appeared in the August 2021 issue with the title “Wes Studi’s Untold Stories.”

Photographs by Michael Schmelling
Styled by Jon Tietz
Grooming by Lauren Chemin
Tailoring by Amelia Fugee
Produced by Kyra Kennedy
Location: El Rancho de las Golondrinas, Santa Fe, NM.


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