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.”
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.
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.
Ned Blessing: The Story of My Life and Times (1993)
A Western TV series; Studi plays “One Horse.”
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.”
Streets of Laredo (1995)
A TV miniseries in the Lonesome Dove universe, about two Texas Rangers. Studi plays “Famous Shoes.”
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.
Wind River (2000)
Based on the real memoirs of a Pony Express rider and set in 1854 Wyoming. Studi plays “Pocatello.”
The New World (2005)
The story of Pocahontas, John Smith, and Jamestown, incorporating indigenous perspectives. Studi plays Opchanacanough (1554–1646), a Powhatan tribal chief.
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.
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.”
Seraphim Falls (2006)
A Confederate colonel goes on a bounty hunt for a Union soldier following the Civil War. Studi plays “Charon.”
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.
Comanche Moon (2008)
A TV miniseries in the Lonesome Dove universe, about two Texas Rangers. Studi plays a Comanche war leader, “Buffalo Hump.”
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.
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.
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.
Hell on Wheels (2011-12)
A TV series about the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. Studi plays a fictional Cheyenne chief named Many Horses.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Which is your favorite of Wes Studi’s historical roles?