MCM: Wes Studi

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Wes Studi is an actor who you have no doubt seen in numerous historical movies, from The Last of the Mohicans to Penny Dreadful. A Cherokee American, he generally plays Native American roles. While he may not be a traditional “hottie,” he’s an immensely talented actor whose presence leaps out at you from the screen.

His characters frequently invert the stereotypical Native American role of “bad guy,” demonstrating their own motivations that are indeed often in opposition to the goals of the white characters. The Village Voice notes that he’s usually in an “adversarial role to protagonist.” Studi replied to that comment,

“I play the guys as doing what they do for the right reasons, because they believe that this is what they need to do. As far as I’m concerned, I’m playing the good guy” (‘As Far As I’m Concerned, I’m Playing the Good Guy’: An Interview With Wes Studi).

In 2019, Studi was given an honorary Oscar for his acting career, becoming the first Native American to win such an award; the Academy announced this was due to his “portraying strong Native American characters with poignancy and authenticity.”

Actor Christian Bale, who co-starred with Studi in Hostiles, introduced Studi at the awards ceremony, and his speech is a good introduction and overview of Studi’s career. Just the sheer amount of languages Studi has worked in is amazing!

Here’s Studi’s acceptance speech:

Let’s run through Wes Studi’s career in historical films!

 

Dances with Wolves (1990)

A Union Army lieutenant (Kevin Costner) travels to the American frontier to find a military post, and of his dealings with a group of Lakota. Studi plays “Toughest Pawnee.”

1990 Dances with Wolves 1990 Dances with Wolves 1990 Dances with Wolves

 

The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

Probably the key role you know him from! Three trappers (including Daniel Day-Lewis) protect the daughters of a British Colonel in the midst of the French and Indian War (1754-63). Studi plays Magua, from the Huron people, who is definitely one the key baddies of the film — but remember that the French and Indian War, during which this story takes place, were a key moment in Native Americans’ struggle for their own existence.

1992 The Last of the Mohicans 1992 The Last of the Mohicans

 

Geronimo: An American Legend (1993)

A biopic about the Apache leader (1829-1909) who led one of the key native resistance movements, fighting against the Mexican and U.S. militaries during the Apache Wars (1849-86). When he finally surrendered, he became a symbol of the American spirit across mainstream white society.

 

1993 Geronimo- An American Legend 1993 Geronimo- An American Legend 1993 Geronimo- An American Legend

 

Ned Blessing: The Story of My Life and Times (1993)

A Western TV series; Studi plays “One Horse.”

1993 Ned Blessing- The Story of My Life and Times

 

The Broken Chain (1993)

The true story of Iroquois warrior Thayendanegea participating in the French and Indian War and the American Revolutionary War. Studi plays “Seth/Chief/Speaker for the Tribe.”

1993 The Broken Chain

 

Streets of Laredo (1995)

A TV miniseries in the Lonesome Dove universe, about two Texas Rangers. Studi plays “Famous Shoes.”

1995 Streets of Laredo

 

Crazy Horse (1996)

A biopic about the Native American war leader of the Oglala Lakota and the Battle of Little Bighorn. Studi plays Red Cloud (1822-1909), one of the most important leaders of the Oglala Lakota.

1996 Crazy Horse

 

Wind River (2000)

Based on the real memoirs of a Pony Express rider and set in 1854 Wyoming. Studi plays “Pocatello.”

2000 Wind River

 

The New World (2005)

The story of Pocahontas, John Smith, and Jamestown, incorporating indigenous perspectives. Studi plays Opchanacanough (1554–1646), a Powhatan tribal chief.

2005 The New World 2005 The New World

 

Into the West (2005)

A TV miniseries that, beginning in the 1820s, tells stories from the perspective of two families, one of white settlers and one of Native Americans. Studi plays Black Kettle (c. 1803-68) , a prominent leader of the Southern Cheyenne.

2005 Into the West

 

Miracle at Sage Creek (2005)

“Two families overcome prejudice and tragedy in 1888 Wyoming when a special Christmas miracle saves the life of a small boy” (IMDB). Studi plays “Chief Thomas.”

2005 Miracle at Sage Creek

 

Seraphim Falls (2006)

A Confederate colonel goes on a bounty hunt for a Union soldier following the Civil War. Studi plays “Charon.”

2006 Seraphim Falls

 

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (2007)

The lead-up to and massacre at Wounded Knee, told from the perspective of a Native American doctor. Studi plays Wovoka (c. 1856-1932), a Paiute religious leader who founded a second episode of the Ghost Dance movement.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

 

Comanche Moon (2008)

A TV miniseries in the Lonesome Dove universe, about two Texas Rangers. Studi plays a Comanche war leader, “Buffalo Hump.”

2008 COMANCHE MOON

Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS (C) 2006 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.

2008 Comanche Moon

 

The Only Good Indian (2009)

A Kickapoo boy is forced to attend an Indian boarding school in the early 1900s. When he escapes to return to his family, a Cherokee bounty hunter (Studi) is hired to find and return him to the school.

2009 The Only Good Indian

 

We Shall Remain (2009)

I recently watched this five-part PBS documentary series about various periods/stories in Native American history, and despite the fact that the first three rely heavily on modern actors, it was good. Studi plays Major Ridge (c. 1771-1839), a Cherokee leader who played a key role in the lead up to the Trail of Tears.

2009 We Shall Remain
2009 We Shall Remain

This is a behind the scenes shot, but you can see the quality of the costumes is quite high.

 

Ink: A Tale of Captivity (2010)

What may be a low budget film about an interesting topic, a woman captured during King Philip’s War (the first BIG conflict between Native Americans and New England colonists). Studi plays King Philip aka Metacomet (1638-76), leader of the Wampanoag tribe.

2010 Ink- A Tale of Captivity

 

Hell on Wheels (2011-12)

A TV series about the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. Studi plays a fictional Cheyenne chief named Many Horses.

2011-12 Hell on Wheels

 

A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

A Western comedy about “a cowardly frontiersman who gains courage with the help of a female gunfighter and must use his newfound skills in a confrontation with her villainous outlaw husband” (Wikipedia). Studi plays “Cochise.”

2014 A Million Ways to Die in the West

 

Penny Dreadful (2016)

An explorer, American gunslinger, scientist and medium unite to combat supernatural threats in Victorian London. Studi appears in season 3 as “Kaetenay,” an Apache with a connection to the American.

2016 Penny Dreadful 2016 Penny Dreadful

 

Hostiles (2017)

A U.S. Army cavalry officer must escort a Cheyenne war chief and his family back to their home in Montana in 1892. Studi plays the war chief, Chief Yellow Hawk.

2017 Hostiles 2017 Hostiles

 

Badland (2019)

A Pinkerton detective has been sent west to find several men who committed atrocious acts during the Civil War. Studi plays a bounty hunter, Harlan Red.

2019 Badland

 

 

Which is your favorite of Wes Studi’s historical roles?

11 Responses

  1. Northcountry gal

    I love Wes Studi! I’m always delighted when he appears in a movie. I guess my favorite would have to be Last of the Mohicans since it is one of my favorite movies. His character is a baddie, but really you do get to see things from his point of view- and partly because of Studi’s amazing acting. And he has an unforgettable face.

    Reply
  2. Roxana

    Wes Studio could absolutely play non-Native American roles with that striking face. I hope his career hasn’t been limited by his ethnicity.

    Reply
    • Michael McQuown

      Not at all; he has had a long run playing heavies in action flicks. My fave costume piece would have to be Penny Dreadful.

      Reply
    • hsc

      He’s done some roles that I don’t think were written as “Native American”– largely action/SF/comic book movies like MORTAL COMBAT (as “Viktor Sagat”), DEEP RISING (as “Hanover”), ICE PLANET (as “Commander Noah Trager”), and MYSTERY MEN (as superhero “the Sphinx”)– but also a few serious roles like HEAT (as “Det. Sammy Casals”).

      Reply
      • TARA

        Quick correction… and it is only because I love both of the fantastic bits of stinking cheese that are Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter that I am pointing this out. Wes Studi was Viktor Sagat in Street Fighter and not Mortal Kombat. If you have not seen Street Fighter I recommend it for the magnificent scene chewing done by Raul Julia. : )

        Reply
  3. MrsC (Maryanne)

    Indeed a familiar face, although I’ve not seen any of these movies. Mainly because they’re almost entirely male character and war story driven and I have no time for either no matter where or when they’re set. I’d love to see more women centred stories about Native Americans. I do get that stories around conflict between colonials and Native American people are an opportunity to tell the other side, but they also constantly put colonials at the centre again. the Colonial Gaze, is that a thing?

    Reply
  4. Al Don

    Such a wonderful actor! If I had to pick, I’d say my favorite is his turn as Magua.

    I also really enjoy his contemporaneous roles as well, such as Heat. He’s got range.

    Reply
    • Colleen

      I don’t remember him in Into the West, although I know he was in it. I think it’s time for me to break out my DVD of the series, even though it angers me to bits. I don’t have a favorite—Wes brings his all to every role.

      Reply
  5. M.E. Lawrence

    I saw “Dances with Wolves” when it came out, and was underwhelmed, perhaps because it seemed like just another white male actor-turned-director’s idea of himself as martyr-savior. (Portraying his Lakota allies as uniformly virtuous and wise was doubtless well-intentioned, but lazy.) The one scene I remember liking was the non-virtuous Pawnee (?) warrior galloping up the river to his death, screaming defiance. Was that Wes Studi? (Tried but failed to find the scene on YouTube.) He is beautiful.

    Reply

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