tv Maria Hinojosa One-on- One PBS November 21, 2015 4:00pm-4:31pm PST
>> hinojosa: in every movie role he's had, from dances with wolves to the last of the mohicans to avatar he brings depth and authenticity to the characters he plays, changing the way audiences see native americans. legendary actor wes studi. i'm maria hinojosa. this is one on one. wes studi, you are an amazing actor, the star of... well, let's just say avatar, dances with wolves, last of the mohicans, geronimo. what an honor to have you on our program. i have to tell you, i want to go to a movie that came out several
years ago-- geronimo, an american legend. because you were... you carried that movie. i'm sure many of our viewers saw that. the moment that i want to talk about for a second is the moment when you first appear onscreen in that movie. and when you are looking at the american soldiers, and you have this look. the camera just kind of zeroes in on your face, and you have this look of distrust, disdain, and interest, and you captured that so well. and i just said it has to be because in your own life as a native american, growing up in oklahoma, these emotions are not... they're not far from your own life, right? >> and they're not foreign, either. yes, it's true. yeah. that's one of the advantages that we as native americans, if you will, american indians, have
a history that, if we keep up on it, you know, and we know what has happened over the years, it's something that as an actor, we can use those kinds of feelings that have been generated over the years into the performances that we provide for film when we come to a historical person like geronimo. >> hinojosa: and there were members of geronimo's family who were on the set. >> oh, absolutely, yes. >> hinojosa: and so you had to really zero in on... >> it's difficult. >> hinojosa: yeah. persr a character when you have people who are, like you say, direct relatives of, and people who... you know, there was a wide range of feelings about geronimo. i mean, he was not the loved person or the totally hated person, but he was both and in between, you know? how do you put together a
persona for a man who has lived in that kind of a strata? and the answer for me was simply as real as possible, and for dealing with whatever particular scene was going on, whatever emotions and circumstances. how does a man deal with circumstances when he's surrounded by the enemy? >> hinojosa: you know, we know you on screen. we know your face. we know your voice. but probably what people don't know is that you grew up in oklahoma, and the first five years of your life you were on the res, and you were monolingual cherokee. and your parents made a decision early on to put you into a boarding school. >> yeah. >> hinojosa: so that you could essentially learn english. and you came back after a year, and you had forgotten all of
your cherokee. >> oh, sure, yeah. i walked back into the house after nine months away at school, and discovered all of a sudden that i had forgotten the cherokee language, because i tried to use english in my grandmother's house. and oh, she put a stop to that immediately. >> hinojosa: tell me what happened when you did. >> (speaking cherokee) is what she said immediately. and she had a scowl on her face. what she had said was, "oh, no way we're going to use english in my house, young man." i know it's... and so everybody backed her up, of course. and i was at a loss for a bit, because it had sort of been wiped from the back of my mind. so... but within a week or two, you know, of listening, and, "oh, yeah, okay." it comes back, you know? riding a bicycle. >> then you do something pretty extraordinary. i mean, a lot of time passes there, but you become a young adult.
and you do something pretty extraordinary, which is that you volunteer to go fight in the war in vietnam. and that... only because you, of course, have been in movies where war, a certain kind of war, is taking place, i wonder about that experience, of being an american indian fighting for the us government in your life, then you come back and you ended up fighting against the us government as an american indian activist. >> sure. well, you know, it's a matter of education. a lot of it, so much of it, has to do with education. because up until the time that i actually returned from vietnam, i really had very little idea of our history. and, of course, these were also times of great unrest within the united states. there was the civil rights movement, there was the antiwar movement, there was the yippies and the hippies and all of that social unrest that was going on. and all of a sudden, as a result
of that, or for whatever reason, because... the american indian movements began to appear as well. and then and there was a great time for lots of education. you know, i was unaware of the many misdeeds perpetrated on our people by the government's indifferent government. and this was a time that activism was really real, you know? and it was a time for joining in. and first you have to have the facts. you have to have the education. once you pick that up... and then that, on one hand, generates lots of anger at that point in time. >> hinojosa: within you? >> yes. >> hinojosa: around you. you were at the siege at wounded knee. it was something that if you grew up in the '60s and '70s,
you knew. >> what happened was it was actually... a tragic little comedy happened, and we wound up taking over the bureau of indian affairs building. >> hinojosa: for how many months? >> it wasn't months. it was mainly days. i think it was more like 12 to 17 days, something like that, that we held the building. and maybe not even that long. i don't really remember. but in any case, after that the movement began to spread back out into the states, back out into the dakotas, and back out into oklahoma, everywhere. there were incidents of conflict between the american indian movement and different municipalities, counties, laws, all over the united states, really. but the one that we focus on is wounded knee, because it got the biggest press coverage, and all the marlon brandos and all of the people that were... >> hinojosa: let's take a second for that, because people might... i mean, i know that for
me that moment was a marker, which is when marlon brando wins the academy award for the godfather. we all thought we were going to see... well, i know that there was some buzz about whether or not he was going to show up, and then a native american woman comes onstage and says, "he is rejecting this award," and talks about what's happening. at that moment, do you feel... did you know at that moment that that could be that moment that was in kind of our cultural lexicon as americans? the native american presence was there for all to see at the academy awards. and yet it was basically saying, "we are still powerless." >> yes, perhaps powerless. but i think that the real legacy of all that activism is what we can look at in terms of the sovereignty that's been built up throughout the indian nations, the tribal nations, whatever you would call it. and to the point that we are now... you know, we're a public presence in government
happenings, in policy and legislation and things like that. so we've finally gotten to the point that we can affect better. we have always been a part of it, but we are capable of affecting our own future through government policies and such these days because of the huge changeover in self perception, i think, that happened back then. the fact that our story was somehow represented on a national venue, or international venue, like the academy awards, was only a testament to the fact that something was going on in wounded knee at that particular point in time, and it was at first not covered by the national press, by the usa press. at first, foreign press came in, and they were covering it. and it was going all around the
world. and then the usa press said, "oh," you know? the american press decided, "well, we'd better not get left out of this." and so in they came. but... so... >> hinojosa: the point is... but, you know what? you were a radical. you were taking on the us government. you... and i'm kind of... i just wrote here, i said, "radical," and then i put a little line next to eytukan, which is... or "ay"tukan, which is the character that you played in avatar. >> right. >> hinojosa: the father of neytiri. >> well, that kind of action was only radical in that it hadn't been done in a long time. it hadn't been done since maybe the... the last time that the sioux met the american army at custer's last stand, you know? i mean, that was the last time that the press covered anything. >> hinojosa: but take me from understanding that to then, you find, you discover that you have
a home in the theater, many years later, and kind of how you put those two things together. how you understand your history as being a native american, american indian activist, who was challenging, forcefully, at all times, for your people, for your voice. fast forward several decades, and you are starring in a huge movie, controversial though it may be, avatar. how do you put those two things together now in the sense of where you came from and where >> i've never really stopped doing the same thing. >> hinojosa: which is? >> which is rather than taking over buildings and confronting us marshals out on the plains of south dakota or that kind of thing, these days what i do is i tell the story of our people. and because you brought up avatar, i have to tell you that
that is a story that's been told so many times before. it's true. it's a wonderful old story, and it always brings us to a spot where we think to ourselves that we really need to improve our relationships between peoples, you know? not only on group levels, but even at individual levels, you know? how we deal with one another in terms of respecting one another to begin with. and that's how i feel about... i mean, i think that's what adds to our deteriorating kind of circumstances that we have here in the states that politically... >> hinojosa: in terms of the native american population? >> well, not only us, but, i mean, it's happening to all diverse groups. as people seem to be more comfortable within their own groups, we seem to be coming away from being able to work as
a whole, you know? to be able to work as a whole, because of so many divergent interest groups, if you will. >> hinojosa: and people feeling really, really kind of grounded and rooted in that. >> grounded and rooted is good. grounded and rooted is good. on the other hand, when you use it as a self protection, it's kind of isolating. it's kind of isolating. the group... we have our groups beginning to isolate away from one another and compete more. perhaps because there's less to be han in terms of resources. >> hinojosa: well, you know, i'm wondering, because there isn't, you know... in hollywood, let's say, it's not as if you have a kind of demographic reality that you can say telling american indian stories, telling stories of native americans, is important because there's a demographic reason. we have a numbers reason to tell this story. so is hollywood in fact... i mean, you've been doing this for a while.
has it changed? >> well, thanks for the reminder. >> hinojosa: and you look fabulous. >> oh. >> hinojosa: but is it... has it gotten better? is it still... i know that you talk about respect, but with hollywood, is there still the kind of banging your head against the wall, and just saying, ome on, now"? >> really, what it comes down to, maria, is that i think everyone that goes to hollywood is going to bang their heads against the wall. some may have a better inroad. some may have... face more difficulty in beginning their careers. but i think it's just as difficult now as when i went there. >> hinojosa: wow. >> mainly because that's the nature of the beast itself, i think. i mean.... >> hinojosa: right. there's always going to... i mean, hollywood is always about that, right? >> yeah. hollywood is always about images, and the next new thing.
it's always the next new thing. and so that's what makes it difficult for guys like me to hang in there for a good long while, you know? like you say, i've been there for a while. >> hinojosa: and you've been working every year. >> i've continued to work. and i... >> hinojosa: knock on wood? >> knock on wood and thank my lucky stars, yes. >> hinojosa: i mean, because even though you've been an amazing star... for example, last of the mohicans, a lot of people said you should have been nominated for an oscar. >> yeah, but you have to remember, that was 1992, or '91. >> hinojosa: yeah, but wes, let me come back to you and say, but that movie, even on the trailer of where it says, you know, "last of the mohicans," your name doesn't even appear on that banner there. and it's just like, "but wes kind of carried that movie-- why isn't his name up there?" >> yeah, that's a good question. i... it just came out in dvd. i think you should make that remark sometime. >> hinojosa: you want me to call someone? >> yeah, call someone. >> hinojosa: "how come wes' name..." but in the sense of,
what do you say to young american indian theater types, kids who would like to become involved in the business? so you say, "go forth and try it, but be prepared, because you're going to hear no a lot, and the doors may close"? >> exactly, that's it. the only thing that i tell them is that never say never, and be ready for, like you say, a lot of rejection. and do not... please do not take it personally. i mean, you only hurt yourself when you take it personally, is how it turns out, from what i've seen and what i've lived. >> hinojosa: i know that that's easy to say, but when you think about the history of... >> some people can take it and some people can't. >> hinojosa: because there's a lot of anger there. >> well, yeah, i suppose. and many times you can say... you can always play the race card, saying that, "oh, well, they don't like indians anyway," you know? but on the other hand, you have
to keep on hammering away at it to get in as much as possible. it's... and if you're always there, if you can provide a performance, and the performance is seen somewhere, you know, you just have to continue to push it and push it and push it to the point that somebody sees you and says, "okay, i want that guy in my movie, too," you know? and that's how it works. >> hinojosa: don't you just love to hear those words? you decided that you wanted to executive produce your own work. >> yeah, yeah. >> hinojosa: you said, "you know what? i have to take control and make my own film." and so you made the film the only good indian, you executive produced, you starred in it. it's a little bit about your personal story in the sense that it's about a boy who ends up in a... one of the schools to acculturate native americans. >> they were basically boarding schools wherein children were many times forcefully extracted from their home environments and plunked into schools, boarding
schools, that... let's just say it was a really bad situation for a lot of the early kids. by the time i went to one of these schools, and this was in the '60s, when things were beginning to, you know, kind of turn around, and... i didn't suffer the many things that happened to kids in... >> hinojosa: it was not a terrible experience for you. >> for me it was not a physically or... terrible situation. >> hinojosa: this movie, though, it was not a major blockbuster. it did well at sundance film festival. but in essence, then, they can say, "well, you see? your story just isn't out there pulling those millions of audience members." >> right. it's not big enough, and there's not enough interest in the subject matter. >> hinojosa: and so you just continue to beat your head against the wall and say, "we're going to do it." but let me ask you about this, wes, because again, your life story is so fascinating. the fact that cherokee was your
first language, i want to bring that back to you, because you have become something of an activist, an educator. you wrote children's books in cherokee. and you have become active in the indigenous language protections here in our country. why? why does it matter to you so much, and why should it matter to all of us? >> it really is a matter of self identification, and a way of... how you identify yourself in the world to other individuals. it's a matter of really identity. you know, you have an identity that is based in a language other than english, gives you a perhaps different outlook on life. maybe it's just a... it may not be a huge difference, but there is a difference, and it's based in the way languages are
structured, and what is made important by just whatever the sound for, say... something like water, you know? "water" in the cherokee language is said, "ama." >> hinojosa: ama. >> ama. >> hinojosa: almost like mother. >> yeah, it's something that is like... it sounds in it's own way as sort of a warm fuzzy thing, wherein it's something that is valued, it's something that is really close to the heart. ama, you know? on the other hand, on the other hand, there's another word that you can say in the same language, cherokee, that means "salt," you know? and the only real difference is that you extend the first part of it, ama. ama is salt. and then, but you say it quicker, it's ama, ama, you know? >> hinojosa: i was actually going to ask you about the word for "conflict," or "war" in the
cherokee language. >> well, "war" in the cherokee language is "danawa." and what it connotates is conflict is something that is almost a... it's an honored necessity. it's something that's always been there, and it's something that many of our men do, because... you know, in order to subsist in the old world. you know, i mean, war was a profession, a... it was what most of the men were there for. and they also derived their identity from that, you know? >> hinojosa: so if that's the word for... >> being a warrior is a... is
not a bad thing. >> hinojosa: what is the word for peace? >> i think it's just the absence of danawa. >> hinojosa: so are our young american indian kids, are they being taught indigenous languages? are they interested? is it a struggle to keep these languages alive? >> it's a struggle, it's a struggle. it's a struggle, but it is... i see the tip of the improvement is beginning to show. and it's coming back. as a matter of fact, i think the most telling part of it all is that we have submersed... classes in submersed... wherein you speak nothing but the language, for young people, right? say from first to third grade. >> hinojosa: immersion, basically. >> total immersion, that's the word, total immersion. and a lot of these kids, what was happening was they'd come to school, and they began to use cherokee within their classes as
time... the more they learned. then they take it home. and unfortunately, they can't use it at home, because their parents don't speak it, right? >> hinojosa: but are they welcoming? are they saying, "yes, let's..." >> well, the good thing is that what's happened is that because the kids have this power, their parents are beginning to enroll in classes as well, to be able to communi... because i think we've gotten the idea across that the really only great place, good place, to start is... it has to be in the home. i mean, a language, a second language these days is a luxury, you know? it's hard to sell, because it's a luxury. but... >> hinojosa: let me ask you this. >> that's the only place it can happen, is within the home, where it meets your needs.
a language has to meet your needs, and it has to grow. that's one of the things about our own particular languages, where we have a lot of elders that would say, "oh, no, no, no, we shouldn't be able to... we shouldn't be changing the language. we shouldn't be doing this and that." or, "this is the old way, and that's the only way that's right for us." that's not the case. our language has to meet the needs of the 21st century. it's like the technologies we were talking about earlier, in that... do we have a word for a computer? do we have a word for iphone? do we have a word for a mouse, and all of that? see, my mother, who's been also involved in this endeavor, works with a committee that has been working almost constantly to come up with new words that match today's reality. >> hinojosa: in the cherokee language.
>> yeah. >> hinojosa: how beautiful. so just... >> that's the only way it can survive. >> hinojosa: so finally, wes, you know, what do you say to our public? if there are people who are just like, you know, "i want to learn more, i want to know more, i want to become involved," what do you say to them? what's... if somebody has a further interest in understanding our own american indian roots at this moment, what do you say to them? "go watch movies, go read books"? leave us with that thought, of what you want them to do. >> i think that you open up your mind and make a conscious effort to look around your surroundings. and more than likely, wherever you live within the united states, you're going to find someone, some group of indians there, that you could actually meet on a one-to-one basis. >> hinojosa: so open your eyes, open your mind, and interact. >> open your mind and engage. >> hinojosa: thank you, wes studi, for engaging with us.
- [voiceover] funding for overheard with evan smith is provided in part by mfi foundation. improving the quality of life within our community. also by hillco partners. a texas government affairs consultancy. and by the alice kleberg reynolds foundation. - i'm evan smith she's an acclaimed poet, critic and novelist best known for the handmaid's tale, cat's eye, the blind assassin, and oryx and crake. her latest book the heart goes last has just been published. she's margaret atwood this is overheard. (inspiring music) (applause) - [evan] let's be honest is this about the ability to learn or about the experience of not having to talk at all. how have you avoided what has befallen other nations in africa-- you say that he had made his own bed, but you caused him to sleep in it. you saw a problem and over time took it on-- (laughter) let's start with the sizzle before we get to the steak.