Wes Studi Talks Cherokee History, Avatar, and Hell on Wheels

Wes Studi, Cherokee, is one of the most successful Native actors of his generation.

As previously reported, Studi will appear in “The Beloved Woman,” a play being staged on Saturday, July 21, in Colonial Williamsburg as part of a five day event, “Return of the Cherokee.” The 64-year-old actor, a Vietnam veteran who left a job as a construction worker in the 1980s to try his hand at acting, took some time to speak with ICTMN about his current project and some of his achievements in Hollywood.

Williamsburg is a celebration of colonialism. What’s the significance of telling a Native story there?

Telling the native side of the story is a good thing. This is a commemoration of 250 years—250 years ago, the Emissaries of Peace went over to England to meet with King George. My character is one of the people who actually chartered the whole nation-to-nation relationship between the Cherokee and the British. They sent over a fellow named Timberlake and he came to visit with the Cherokees as an emissary for a certain Ballantine and during that time these headmen told him, “It would be good if you were to arrange for us to go visit your King over there.” Off we went—and this was before the Revolutionary War! The fact that all of this is portrayed by native people is another good thing.

Your character, Cherokee headman Attakullakulla, comes to Williamsburg seeking a peace agreement with Patrick Henry, the governor of the Virginia Commonwealth. How does if feel to play someone so important to your ancestors?

As for my character, I feel like I am being a part of ongoing history by portraying Attakullakulla. I feel honored to portray a man who was an influential part of our people for a good number of years. He was responsible for pointing us in the direction wherein we could endure as a people. It was rough times for those guys back then.

You are working with Irene Bedard as you did in 2003 in Chris Eyre’s Edge of America have you kept in touch with Irene since 2003?

I have seen Irene a number of times—Alaska is not that far away sometimes. We normally wind up doing a lot of the same things in terms of events and such. Irene and I go back a few years.

You are known for the movie roles in Dances with Wolves**, *The Last of the Mohicans*, *Geronimo* and *Avatar*—do you have a favorite?**

I like to say that my favorite is the next role that I’m going to do. And by doing so, I avoid jinxing myself if I think that one or the other is my favorite. I try to avoid doing that.

In some ways, Avatar was a very simple idea, and not a new one—the indigenous people against technology. Why is it still compelling?

You’re right, this is a story that has been told many times before, but that’s because this is something that’s happened many times before. And it continues to happen. The plot has a direct correlation to many westerns—only this was a western up in space, and in the future.

Considering the history of how Native people have been portrayed in movies—as savages, et cetera—what type of impression do you think you have made on the industry?

Hopefully I’ve made a good one that will allow me to continue to work! I always hear kind remarks from people, in fact, I just visited the Hualapai in Peach Springs, Arizona this past weekend and one of the things that really makes me feel good is they talk about not only Last of the Mohicans as one of their favorites, but also The Only Good Indian, which I did a few years ago. I totally appreciate that they recognize an American Indian has been able to reach the level and status that I have.

You appeared on a few episodes of the AMC series Hell On Wheels as Chief Many Horses. The show is about to come back for its second season—for those who haven’t seen the series, what’s your take on it?

I think it speaks to the question of the long and lingering effect that change and technology and relentless colonial movement throughout North America has created. Eddie Spears, who is the only actual Indian regular on the show, plays a character very much like Sam, the character I played in The Only Good Indian. Hell on Wheels is going to be a very good vehicle for Eddie Spears.

What’s on the horizon for you?

I have a couple of things that I’m doing—I’m continuing to work on an animated feature called Planes, which is a spin-off of the Cars franchise. These are planes that fight forest fires, and I voice one of the aircraft characters. Animation is a continuing thing, and I’m having fun doing it. I can also tell you that in September, for a project I’m doing I’m going to have to learn to ride a motorcycle. For real—we’re talking Harleys.