From Standing Rock to Alaska and a new film Wind River, Actor Martin Sensmeier continues to make a lasting impression as a trailblazing Native star and champion baller
Martin Sensmeier just keeps rolling. The 31-year-old Tlingit and Athabascan returned to Alaska in March for the first time since his role as Red Harvest in The Magnificent Seven to play in the 71st Annual Lions Club Gold Medal Basketball Tournament in Juneau.
He proved he still has game. Sensmeier swished a game-winning shot for Yakutat against a rival Hoonah. “It’s always a good game against them. We were down towards the end of the game and got a couple buckets and tied it up and then there was like 6 or 7 seconds. We inbounded the ball and I drove the end of the court and nailed the shot.”
The tournament, which he’s been playing in for 13 years now, is one of the highlights of his year, Sensmeier says. “I usually try to make it home every year to play in that. When I do it’s pretty special. All the Southeast Alaskan communities participate.”
Many children gravitated toward Sensmeier, he says. “It’s not so often one of us is in a big movie like that with a character so cool, the kids they loved it. I was surrounded by a lot of kids when I sat in the gym. They all had a bunch of questions. Five or six little kids with mohawks and had all these questions about Red Harvest. It’s hard. I’ve always seen myself has not really changed so I kind of feel like little old me. So walking into a gym and having the people react that way, it kind of was surreal in a way.
“I recognized the platform that film has given me,” Sensmeier adds. “And there’s a lot of responsibility to carry yourself in a respectful way. I just try to do that and set a good example for these kids. And let them know that they can pursue these dreams and it’s ok to dream, to dream big.”
Just days after the tournament, he was utilizing that platform in front of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs testifying as an ambassador for the Boys and Girls Club.
“[I testified] in regards to the diabetes crisis we deal with in Indian country,” Sensmeier says. He also made the senate aware of “the lack of access to healthy foods that a lot of our communities have. We don’t have access to a lot of those nutritional foods.”
Sensmeier considers giving back one of the greatest things he can do. One of the few American Indian actors, he now represents about 200 Boys and Girls Clubs which serve 86,000 Native youth. “A lot of these clubs provide after school programs, meals. Poverty’s a real thing and some of these kids depend on these clubs to have access to nutritious foods and a place to go where mentorships provided: healthy activities, exercise, stuff like that.”
He might not be in the position he’s in without a little help from his Magnificent Seven co-star, Denzel Washington, the national spokesman for the organization. Sensmeier was invited by a friend to attend the Boys and Girls Club’s 2016 Youth of the Year Gala in Washington, D.C. where he ran into Denzel. “Once I was there I also went to lobby on the hill for funding, and Denzel was there. We got to this meeting and we got the chance to catch up [since filming] and he kind of mentored me a bit. Denzel’s word goes a long ways. He played a small part in helping me get that position as an ambassador. He said it would be a good fit for if you want to give back, if you want to be involved. I was like, ‘yeah, I would like to do that.’”
Sensmeier will be back in the spotlight in August when Wind River — directed by 2017 Oscar nominee Taylor Sheridan — is released in the mainstream. The action-crime-thriller starring Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen is set on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming and also includes Native actors Graham Greene and Gil Birmingham.
“That’s going to be a heavy film,” Martin Sensmeier told ICMN. “It involves a murder mystery and some stuff about missing indigenous women. And there’s never really been a movie about that.”
Martin Sensmeier says it was tough working with Greene, due to his sense of humor. “I played a very dramatic role. He’s such a funny guy. I had to ditch him on the set, man. He’s such a great guy and awesome person to be around and such an interesting person and a a legend that, obviously, I wanted to just take that in and absorb anything I could. But at the same time, I still had to focus on the work.”
Back in Yakutat
Though his career’s just taking off, Martin Sensmeier thinks a lot about home. “Every single day,” he says. “And one day, I’ll move back home. That’s the source. That’s where I get my strength from. That’s where my family’s at and where a lot of my motivation comes from to be out here doing what I’m doing.”
When he came home for the basketball tournament, Martin Sensmeier says he received gifts of smoked salmon and other indigenous foods, which he thoroughly enjoys.
Yakutat, which lies on the Gulf of Alaska, has an undeniable appeal to one of Native America’s newest names in acting. “It’s a small fishing village and it’s beautiful — one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Surrounded by the Saint Elias Mountain Range, the largest in the world. I feel very blessed to say I come from a community like Yakutat.”
Sensmeier says the culture is undergoing revitalization in his home community. “It’s strong. The language. There’s people that are working very hard to bring it back. With each elder that passes on, we lose a lot.”
He’s excited about the reimplementation of a canoe society. “That’s something that was gone a very long time because it was outlawed by the government. In 1904, they broke up all the canoes and they outlawed potlatches, canoeing. One-hundred years later we’re bringing back the canoe; it’s special man. A lot of our identity is connected to the canoe, the language, the land.”
During the peaceful protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline, Martin Sensmeier made his way out to North Dakota twice to show his solidarity. “I definitely supported the movement. The people that were there, the water protectors. I was definitely keeping up with it. I know people that were out there for months on end and people that put their lives on the line so I think that there were some very brave people and some that were willing to do whatever it takes to protect the water and the land.”
While Martin Sensmeier might be the biggest thing for Alaskan Indians right now, he recognizes there’s an up-and-comer tailing him into the nation’s spotlight. Kamaka Hepa — a 6-8 Inupiat who is one of the nation’s top basketball recruits who was Alaska’s player of the year as a high school freshman and sophomore before moving to Oregon — is gaining momentum. “I’ve seen him play. The kid’s special. I hope he goes far.”