Cherokee actor Wes Studi was honored at the 11th annual Governors Awards on Sunday with an Oscar that honored his lifetime body of work in the film industry. Studi, who came to the stage after introductions by the first Native poet laureate Joy Harjo and actor Christian Bale — came to the stage, and while holding his Oscar said, “It’s about time.”
Studi is the first Native American actor to receive an Academy Award. Buffy Sainte-Marie, born on the Piapot 75 reserve in Saskatchewan, Canada, was the first Indigenous person to receive an Oscar for the best original song in 1983 for Up Where We Belong. The song was used in the movie “An Officer and a Gentleman.”
A celebratory evening
At the Governors Awards, Studi received gracious support from his peers in the industry, including representatives from the Indigenous community to include Chris Eyre, Tantoo Cardinal, Taika Waititi, Q'orianka Kilcher and others.
“I think it was a historic night on so many levels,” said Crystal Echo Hawk, CEO and founder of IllumiNative. The organization was asked to create Studi’s tribute film. “It was so powerful to see him there and it struck me that Wes was the third person after David Lynch and Geena Davis. And there were such notable actors in the industry such as Isabella Rossellini, Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy, Tom Hanks, and Constance Woo as well as powerful executives in this room.
“It was beautiful when Q'orianka Kilcher walked out and she held her own. When she said, ‘Joy Harjo was the first Native U.S Poet Laureate’ you could hear the surprise in the room. Joy was such a powerful presence. The level of emotion toward Wes’ career and his tribute film was amazing,” she said. “To see him get that Oscar and to think how long it was ... was emotional to all of us there, and there was not a dry eye at our table. The Industry realized our people have been out of sight and out of mind for so long.”
“It was so special to see Joy there along with Christian Bale and everyone was abuzz - younger Native people were there. Wes was for so long doing everything to cultivate that next generation in front of and beyond the camera. I and my colleagues at IllumiNative were so honored to be able to create Wes’ tribute film. We continue to advocate for the inclusion of the Indigenous voice. And there is a lot more work to do.”
Echo Hawk says they do not yet have the Academy’s nod to show the tribute film and that they have been inundated with requests. “I will let you know once we can show the film to the public.”
Fun on social media
During the evening Echo Hawk and others posted to social media about the celebratory evening dressed in their finest, posing along with such heavy hitters as Wes Studi, Taika Waititi, Heather Rae, Tantoo Cardinal, and Martin Sensmeier.
In a Facebook post, Echo Hawk wrote: “Last night history was made...so long overdue. Congratulations Wes Studi for your well deserved Oscar! It was a beautiful and emotional evening that included the US Poet Laureate Joy Harjo and Qorianka Kilcher introducing Wes and helping to present him with the Oscar alongside Christian Bale. Native peoples were seen and heard in a very powerful way last night. #IllumiNative was honored to have been chosen to produce the tribute film that was shown.”
Bird Runningwater posted, “What an amazing night last night witnessing Wes Studi receive his #HonoraryOscar at the Academy's Governors Awards. Congrats are in order to Wes himself and also the two powerful Indigenous women, Q'orianka Kilcher and US Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, who introduced him providing the context and significance of the moment we were all fortunate to witness.”
Introductions by Joy Harjo and Christian Bale
The nation’s first Native American poet laureate, Joy Harjo and Academy Award-winning actor Christian Bale — who appeared with Studi in Hostiles — both introduced Studi with ample praise for his lifetime of work in the film industry.
Joy Harjo first introduced Studi addressing him as “one of the most accomplished native actors of our times. Harjo also listed his long series of characters with descriptions to include the toughest Pawnee, a high-ranking Huron warrior, a sheriff, a powerful arms dealer, a tribal council member, President of the USA, a werewolf, a police captain and more.
“Because we have watched, admired, been entranced, as you transform, and in doing so, transform the story of all of us. Because we know Wes Studi to be consummate artist, lover of community, bearer of story, and friend,” said Harjo.
Christian Bale then gave Studi another introduction filled with praise.
“Tonight it is my tremendous honor to be present at a long overdue moment as Wes Studi becomes the very first Native American to receive an Academy Award. When I think about Wes, I think my God, what a face. That face that is etched with history, with experience, character, dignity, every emotion under the sun, that face that tells so many stories all at once… I got to see that expertise when we worked together on Scott Cooper's Hostiles.” said Bale.
Bale also mentioned that Studi, as a representation of Native Americans portrayed in films, had spoken over two dozen Native languages, served as a language consultant for James Cameron’s Avatar and is a spokesperson for the Indigenous Language Institute and the Partnership With Native Americans.
“It's clear that Wes is in possession of a brilliant mind and prodigious talent, but more importantly, as an artist, he has had a profound influence on the perception of his people. When we think of Native Americans in film, his are some of the most distinctive performances that we all remember, said Bale.
In accepting his award Studi made light of the praise given to him by Harjo and Bale, “God, I'm amazing,” joked Studi. “The way these people will tell it, I am absolutely amazing.”
“I'd simply like to say it's about time. Ladies and gentlemen, it's about time, said Studi amidst applause and cheers.
“It's about space. It's about a lot of people in the strangest places. From the rolling hills and plains of North America to the mountains of Appalachia, from the desert beauty of Navajo Dine’ Nation to the gritty streets of Los Angeles, and the sound stages of Hollywood ... it's been a wild and wonderful ride and I'm really proud to be here tonight as the first Indigenous Native American to receive an Academy Award.”
“It's a total and humbling honor to receive an award for doing something I love to do and comparatively speaking, started late in life, but hey, who's counting, right?”
“Dances with Wolves was and is probably the film that got me started in the business. Luckily there was a character with no actual name, known only as the toughest Pawnee, was noticed by audiences and filmmakers alike and I believe the Pawnee even appreciated it and for that, I have of course, Kevin Costner to thank for that and I thank you Kevin.”
Studi also mentioned the trajectory of his career to include blockbusters such as Avatar. He also spoke about his appreciation for working in independent films.
“I also worked in the fast-developing Native American sphere of film making with director, producer Georgina Lightning with her film Older Than America and with director Chris Eyre, for his film, Edge of America… I thank you, Georgina, Chris, and Kevin. We should make some more.”
“So in closing, I'd like to thank each and every actor I have ever worked with, whether you liked me or not, from my very first paying gig at American Indian Theater Company in Tulsa, Oklahoma … certainly not the least, I'm going to do a big shout out to the fans and followers on social media and moviegoers that make all of this possible for us.”
Studi then thanked the crowd in his Cherokee Native language.
[Translated] "Thank you is what we say as Cherokee. Those of you who are here, thank you. You Cherokee who are here, I'm grateful. I'm grateful. Thank you to the soldiers and veterans also.”
Thank you to Terri Henderson-Fields, Will Chavez and Kathy Sierra of the Cherokee National Youth Choir who assisted Indian Country Today in translating and sending the written words of the Cherokee language.