The untold stories of Wes Studi, a little-known Native American icon
Wes points out that the cast includes Tatanka Means, the son of his ex The Last of the Mohicans costar Russell Means, and he is encouraged by that sense of continuity. When it comes to the industry as a whole, he points out that there are so many more Native Americans involved in filmmaking than there were in its early days. “And now,” he says, “they are able to write from their native mindset. “
Sydney Freeland, who worked on Dogs Reservation with Sterlin Harjo and directed several episodes of Peacock’s Rutherford Falls, a comedy about a town in upstate New York with a large Indigenous community, credits Wes with some of that change. “He laid the foundation for a lot of the things people do now,” she says. “There are a lot of roles to come, but these are contemporary roles. These are not period pieces. It’s not “We’re going to make a Hollywood western with cowboys and Indians.” Much of this is due to the foundation he created for everyone. Freeland described a moment on the set of Dogs Reservation when she looked back and saw all those familiar native faces. “These are people I slept on,” she said. “A native showrunner, cast and crew.” It was what Wes dreamed of since he first wandered around Los Angeles over 30 years ago.
I have given a lot of thought to the state of Indigenous theater this year. The TV rights to the adaptation of my novel were dropped by HBO, and I felt it was because there were no stars to launch, too few known faces to sell the series. It was wrong, of course, because then came Rutherford Falls, the first true indigenous television show in this country, with a largely indigenous cast and room for indigenous writers, and Dogs Reservation is on the way.
But above all, it was wrong because we still have Wes Studi, our shooting star, leading the way with his genius. I was recently asked to write a short film for an Oakland production company. I had never written a screenplay before, but I started to imagine a screenplay, written specifically for Wes Studi. Enough to showcase all his talents, as a charmer, a humorist, a speaker of several languages. It will be an older Native who travels the American landscape, visiting AA meetings along the way. It will be a poet who published his first book in his 70s, after a life of addiction. He’ll rob banks with handwritten notes. His twin brother will have passed away recently and the book will be released at the end of his journey. Something like that. I’m probably not the one doing it. But someone else should. Write it down with Wes in mind. With all he can do, and with all that it could mean to see him play in a movie that everyone sees. Well, obviously not everyone. Just enough audience is all we ever asked for.
Tommy Orange is the author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist novel “Over there”. This is his first article for GQ.
A version of this story originally appeared in the August 2021 issue with the headline “Wes Studi’s Untold Stories”.
Photographs by Michel schmelling
Stylized by Jon Tietz
Grooming by Lauren Chemin
Made by Amélie Fugée
Produced by Kyra kennedy
Place: El Rancho de las Golondrinas, Santa Fe, New Mexico.