Wes Studi (born c. 1944) got a relatively late start as a film star—he was about 44 when he landed his first movie—but prior to that career move the Native American performer had compiled a list of real-life credits that included soldier, reporter and activist.
Born Wesley Studie—a full-blooded Cherokee—in rural Oklahoma, the eldest son of a ranch hand and a housekeeper, he was educated at an American Indian boarding school and got an early taste of how Native Americans were often treated off the reservation. As a boy, Studi and his friends would venture to nearby towns, where "all the shopkeepers got very careful when we walked in, " as he recalled to Mark Goodman in a People interview.
Served in Vietnam
Undaunted, Studi became a soldier in 1967, and eventually served in Vietnam. "At one point, " Goodman wrote, "his company was pinned down in the Mekong Delta—and nearly killed—by friendly fire." Not every Army memory was traumatic, though. As Studi related to Goodman, one day he and a fellow Native American recruit were "told we didn't have duty that particular day. The rest of the company went out on a two-day operation. When they came back, we learned they had relocated entire villages. I don't know that it had anything to do with the fact that many of our own people had been relocated, but it sort of struck me as funny."
An unfocused young man on his return stateside, Studi enrolled at Tulsa Junior College, which led to his participation in the Trail of Broken Treaties protest march in 1972, according to People. "He was one of the protesters who briefly occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs, " Goodman noted. "The next year he joined the celebrated protest at Wounded Knee, [South Dakota], and was among those arrested on federal charges of insurrection." Studi was jailed on that charge, but earned a waiver after only a few days.
Soon afterward, Studi landed a job as reporter for the Tulsa Indian News, writing on Native American issues. For several years, Studi worked and ran a horse ranch in Tulsa. Then, in 1982, after divorcing his second wife, Studi felt a need to "build another life, " as he said in the People piece. He joined the American Indian Theater Company and by 1986 had moved to Los Angeles to pursue his craft. "At first Hollywood treated me like I wasn't there, " he remarked to Dana Kennedy in an Entertainment Weekly profile. "Then they treated me like I was marginally there, and now they treat me much better."
Lands Big Hollywood Roles
In 1988 Studi got his big break—a role in the acclaimed independent feature Powwow Highway. That role led to a small but intense part in the blockbuster Dances With Wolves. In the Kevin Costner-directed film, Studi was an "angry Pawnee warrior who scalps actor Robert Pastorelli, " Goodman wrote.
Next came another big role, in the popular remake of The Last of the Mohicans. Though the film itself received mixed reviews, many critics took special note of Studi's performance—New York magazine's David Denby went so far as to say that "only vicious Magua, played by the striking Cherokee actor Wes Studi, seems like a flesh-and-blood man."
In 1993 Studi landed his most important acting role to date—the title role in Geronimo. As the legendary Chiricahua Apache leader who waged a determined—and, ultimately, ill-fated—campaign against the U.S. Army, Studi crafted a layered performance. "Photographs of Geronimo in his prime show a man with a fierce, implacable demeanor and the stocky physique of a defensive lineman, " stated New Yorker critic Terrence Rafferty. "Wes Studi … has a lean, wiry frame, but he nonetheless manages to convey, superbly, the essential quality of those photographs, which is the gravity of Geronimo's idea of himself." While Geronimo didn't pack in the audiences the way Dances With Wolves and Mohicans had, Studi earned virtually unanimous praise.
While Studi's roles have leaned toward the grimly dramatic, those close to the actor know another side. "All you see is the stoic guy onscreen, " fellow Native American actor Rodney Grant told Goodman. "People don't realize how humorous he is." And how versatile; according to the article, Studi has "written two children's books in Cherokee and even translated the Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Kentucky Cycle into that language." "I'm a Cherokee first and an American later, " explained Studi in Entertainment Weekly. "While I may forgive, I will never forget—and I will pass that feeling on to my own kids."
Further Reading on Wes Studi
Entertainment Weekly, December 24, 1993; November 10, 1995.
New York, September 28, 1992
New Yorker, January 10, 1994.
People, December 20, 1993.