We have seen a nice change in the cultural landscape of our movies, films and plays: We have seen more people of color, particularly famous Native American actors, getting work in positive roles rather than unfortunate stereotypes. These actors are not content to simply rest on their laurels; they use their fame as a means to help others.
Top Ten Famous Native American Actors Who Inspire Us
1. Eddie Spears
Eddie Spears is the youngest in this list of famous Native American actors. He was born November 29, 1982 in South Dakota. Spears is a member of the Sioux Tribe. His career started with him taking on roles written for Native American characters, which is something some famous Native American actors feel is limiting.
In addition to his work as an actor, he is also the face and spokesperson for the American Indian Commercial Tobacco Quit Line, which works to help Native Americans end their addictions to commercial tobacco products. He is writing screenplays that he wants to produce and direct so that he can bring Native American folklore to life on the screen.
Eddie Spears has one sister and five brothers. His brother Michael Spears is also an actor.
2. Misty Upham
Misty Upham was born July 6, 1982 and died in October 2014. She was an inspiration both in life and in death.
In spite of her own personal tragedies, Misty followed her dream of becoming an actor. She was working toward creating better roles in film for Native American women. She started a blog to give voice to her depression and the sexual violence she had suffered; by doing so, she has helped thousands of victims feel less alone.
Misty was missing for 11 days before she was found dead at the bottom of a cliff. The troubles that her family had in obtaining help from the police while she was missing inspired a documentary “11 Days—The Search for Misty Upham.” This documentary examines some of the problems with missing and exploited Native American women.
3. Wes Studi
Wes Studi grew up in a rural area and spoke only Cherokee until he went to elementary school. He was ready for a career in dry cleaning when he was drafted into the Vietnam War in 1964. When he left the Army, he began working as an activist. He participated in the protest at Wounded Knee in 1973 that inspired Native Americans across the country.
Wes went into acting after his first marriage ended. He built his career by playing Native American characters with a richness and depth that had long been missing from films and television.
Wes Studi talks extensively about the need to bring Native American stories to the mainstream movie world.
4. Sacheen Littlefeather
Sacheen Littlefeather, born Marie Louise Cruz in 1946, is best known for her inspiring speech at the Academy Awards in 1973. She had been given a 15-page speech written by Marlon Brando, but at the last minute was warned to keep her speech to only 60 seconds. She read Brando’s full speech backstage to the press afterwards.
Sacheen had her own career as a Native American actor cut short because of her passionate speech on Marlon Brando’s behalf. Her last movie credit was for Shoot the Sun Down in 1978. She began work with Mother Teresa in the 80s. She returned home and became a healthcare advocate in the Native American community, and she has led the prayer circle in the name of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to be canonized.
5. Michael Spears
While many famous Native American actors complain about the dearth of good roles for Native Americans, Michael Spears is bringing their stories to life. He has been involved in several films that focus on Native American life both in the present and in the past. With movies such as Winter in the Blood, Angels in Stardust and The Activist, Michael Spears has become part of the solution: He is helping to bring Native American stories to mainstream consciousness.
Michael was born in 1977. He has one sister and five brothers. He has worked with his brother Eddie Spears both in films and in music.
Michael Spears is a speaker for sustainable energy and belongs to the Kul Wicasa Oyate Lakota Lower Brulé Tribe of South Dakota, often known as the Sioux.
6. Kimberly Norris-Guerrero
If you watch television, you have probably seen Kimberly Norris-Guerrero in a guest spot on one of your favorite shows. In addition to multiple TV roles, Kimberly has also been in several movies. She is careful to choose roles that show Native American women in strong positions or demonstrating a deep, inner strength.
Kimberly co-founded the Akatube Film and Music Academy with Johnny Guerrero and Yvonne Russo. Their mission is to bring positive role models for Native American youth to follow. They have workshops and classes to help Native American students learn how to bring their stories to life using theater and music.
She is also a founding member of The StyleHorse Collective. The StyleHorse Collective describes itself as a group that “tells stories about tribes, for tribes, as a tribe.”
7. Moses Brings Plenty
Moses Brings Plenty was born in September 1969 and raised in South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation. He has performed in movies, on TV and on stage as an actor and as a musician. Like many famous Native American actors, he is dedicated to the goal of presenting positive Native American role models to young Native Americans.
While he has also been part of some popular movies such as “Pirates of the Caribbean,” some of Moses’ most well-known roles have been in documentaries shown on the History Channel.
Moses Brings Plenty speaks on behalf of tribal elders and youths at venues around the country. He is the personification of the spiritual Native American man who leads his community by example. He is always looking for opportunities to help his people.
8. Sheri Foster
Sheri Foster, a talented and personable Cherokee actor, has been working in television and film since the mid-90s. She was born in 1957 in Texas and spent summers with her grandmother in Oklahoma where they attended powwows and dances.
In an interview on www.signature-reads.com, Sheri Foster talks about starting out her life as an actor in the 90s in Los Angeles. The roles for Native Americans were few and still often portrayed by whites. She began to see many of the same actors at auditions, and they developed a community.
She is one of the founding trustees of an organization called First Americans in the Arts. They used to do awards shows for famous Native American actors. Now they provide a platform for the positive portrayal of Native American characters.
9. Gil Birmingham
Gil Birmingham was born in 1953 in Texas. Because his father was in the military, his family moved around a lot when he was young. They settled in California, where he graduated from college with a degree in Administration. He began his professional career as a petrochemical engineer.
In the 80s, after a talent scout discovered him in a gym, Gil began to pursue acting as a career. Once he established himself as a presence in LA, Gil Birmingham kept busy playing a wide variety of roles for Native Americans.
When he isn’t acting, Gil Birmingham plays music and brings attention to national events that affect climate change and Native American lands. He is using his fame to amplify the voices of his people.
10. Elaine Miles
Elaine Miles was born in Pendleton, Ore. on the Umatilla Indian Reservation in 1960. Her family moved to Washington State when she was 3.
Elaine is known for her portrayal of Marilyn, a Tlingit woman, on the show “Northern Exposure.” Her mother played the role of Marilyn’s mother on the show as well.
Since “Northern Exposure” went off the air, Elaine has been touring the country as a comedian and making videos. With fellow Native American comic, Drew LaPaca, she made a comedy exercise video for Native Americans to draw attention to the high rates of diabetes on the reservations.
Elaine Miles is still making videos with fellow Native American actors and comedians. These videos are freely available on YouTube and focus on a group of friends who live on the reservation.
A fair list of famous Native American actors who inspire us would be so much longer than simply ten examples. So many actors are not content to simply rest on their fame; they want to give back to their communities and help make this world a more beautiful place to live.
We can all follow their examples by bringing positive messages about our cultures to the forefront of the conversation. It is so easy to become jaded or just tired when we see problems that are too big for us to solve on our own. What we can do as actors is amplify the voices of those less powerful. We tell our stories, and we show everyone what we can achieve when we work together.