Wes Studi, is a Cherokee actor and film producer. He has won critical acclaim and awards for his portrayal of Native Americans in film. He has appeared in Academy Award-winning films, such as Dances with Wolves (1990) and The Last of the Mohicans (1992), and in the Academy Award-nominated films Geronimo: An American Legend (1993) and The New World (2005). He is also known for portraying Sagat in Street Fighter (1994). Other films he's appeared in are Heat, Mystery Men, Avatar, A Million Ways to Die in the West, and the television series Penny Dreadful.
In 2013, he was inducted into the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum’s Hall of Great Western Performers. Throughout his 30-year career, he’s won numerous awards, including several First Americans in the Arts awards and the 2009 Santa Fe Film Festival Lifetime Achievement Award.
Prior to starting his film career, Studi served in the U.S. during the Vietnam War. After an honorable military discharge, Studi returned home with a fire in the belly, and became seriously involved with Native American politics. He joined the American Indian Movement (AIM) and participated in the Trail of Broken Treaties protest march in 1972, where hundreds of Native American activists marched on Washington. He was one of the protesters who briefly occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs Building there. In 1973, Wes participated in the occupation at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, for which he was arrested.
Shortly after Wounded Knee, Wes moved to the Tahlequah, Oklahoma, where he worked for the Cherokee Nation, and helped start the Cherokee Phoenix, a bilingual newspaper still in publication today. During that time Wes put his linguistic skills to work and began teaching the Cherokee language in the community. Later attending Northeastern University in Tahlequah, he made further attempts at positive influence in his work with his people.
After college, Wes shifted his attention to running his own horse ranch and became a professional horse trainer. It was during this era that he began acting at The American Indian Theatre Company in Tulsa in 1983, where he found both the adrenaline rush he craved and the cathartic release he needed. “When you’re able to release those feelings in an acting form, it’s healthier than leaving them inside,” he says of discovering acting.
Wes first took the professional stage in 1984 with “Black Elk Speaks” and has never looked back. As his success grew on stage, he expanded to productions for Nebraska Public Television in the summer of 1985. Not long after, he moved to Los Angeles, landing his first film role in “Powwow Highway” and making his TV debut in a small role in the ABC TV-movie “Longarm” in 1988.
In 1990, Wes portrayed a terrifyingly memorable Pawnee warrior in “Dances with Wolves.” Two years later he landed the role of Magua in Michael Mann’s “The Last of the Mohicans,” the performance that put him on the map.
Wes drew on his own combat training, anger and sense of enforced isolation for his riveting depiction of the vengeful Magua. He soon became known for his film roles portraying strong Native American characters as he strove to portray them with poignancy and authenticity.
Studi went on to play the title character in the Walter Hill-directed film “Geronimo: An American Legend” (1993) alongside veteran actors Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall, for which he won a Western Heritage Award. He also made memorable appearances in such films as “Heat” (1995) as Al Pacino’s partner, “Deep Rising” (1998) and “Mystery Men” (1999). In 2002, he brought legendary character Lt. Joe Leaphorn to life for a series of PBS movies produced by Robert Redford and based on Tony Hillerman’s books “Skinwalkers,” “Coyote Waits,” and “A Thief of Time.”
Wes’ other notable film credits include: “The Only Good Indian,” which he also produced, “The New World,” “Street Fighter,” “Seraphim Falls,” “Three Priests,” and such prestigious television movies as “Crazy Horse,” “Comanche Moon,” “Streets of Laredo,” “Broken Chain,” and “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” His television credits include “The Mentalist,” “Hell on Wheels,” and General Abner in “Kings.”
He also fronts the band Firecat of Discord with his wife, singer Maura Dhu, primarily performing original music. Firecat released their first self-titled CD in 1998, touring the U.S. in 2000. Their music was also featured in the short film Bonnie Looksaway’s “Iron Art Wagon,” which Wes directed.
Additionally, Wes wrote two children’s books, “The Adventures of Billy Bean” and “More Adventures of Billy Bean” for the Cherokee Bilingual/Cross-Cultural Education Center. In 2006, Studi was honored with the Golden Boot Award.
Studi remains a passionate activist and academic. He’s taken a national leadership role in the promotion and preservation of indigenous languages, acting as the spokesperson for the Santa Fe-based Indigenous Language Institute, and working as a language consultant on several films, including “Avatar” and the PBS documentary “We Shall Remain.” He’s also active in encouraging the next generation of filmmakers and performers, providing mentorship and participating in apprenticeship programs.
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