There has always been a certain amount of tension between Hollywood and the Native American community. The great Marlon Brando famously refused his Oscar for his performance in ‘The Godfather‘ as protest against the unfair portrayals of Native Americans in Hollywood. And to be fair, Native Americans have always been stereotyped in films. Still, a number of actors from the native community have managed to make a mark in the world’s most glamorous film industry. Who could ever forget “The Chief” in Milos Forman’s iconic ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’? Or “Chingachgook” in ‘The Last of the Mohicans’? But it’s also sad to think of the number of Native American actors whose careers never really took off; and actors who still remain hugely underutilized in the industry.
Actors like Will Sampson and Wes Studi may have delivered memorable performances, but American cinema could never really fully explore their talents. As a tribute to the Native American community, we at The Cinemaholic, have decided to celebrate the life and works of some of the finest Native American actors the world has ever known. While some of the choices may seem debatable, one must understand that this, like any other list, is purely subjective, and we’ve tried to make sure that even the contemporaries aren’t missed out. Here’s a list of the top Native American actors ever. Who is your favorite Indian American actor?
10. Megan Fox
This may come off as a big surprise, considering most people are unaware of the fact that Megan Fox, one of Hollywood’s most famous sex symbols, is part Native American. As an actress, Fox has never really got the recognition that she truly deserved, for she is mostly only noted for her charisma and glamour. Her sex symbol status has heavily overshadowed her acting prowess, but with notable performances in ‘Jennifer’s Body’ and ‘Hope and Faith’, Fox has made a very strong statement to Hollywood.
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9. Julia Jones
Another Hollywood beauty whose racial identity is still unknown to most people. Born in Massachusetts, Julia Jones has both African American and native descent. She played a significant role in a few of the ‘Twilight Saga‘ movies, which earned her widespread popularity, and also had a minor part to play in the Netflix series ‘Longmire‘. However, it was her role in ‘The Ridiculous 6’ that displayed her abilities to carry the film forward in a leading role. Jones has a rare charm that makes her a delight to watch onscreen. She may not be the most versatile actress around, but there’s a certain simplicity and elegance that she brings onto her characters, making them look believable and human.
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8. Karina Lombard
Now this is strictly a personal choice. One could perhaps argue that Karina Lombard may not have the most impressive body of work to make it to this list, but the kind of raw talent she possesses makes me feel she deserves a respected position on the list. Lombard first burst onto the modeling scene in the late 80s before venturing into Hollywood in 1993, when she starred in a leading role in John Duigan’s ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’. Lombard was trained as an actor at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute at the age of 18. While her career, at this point of time, may seem a little disoriented, there’s no denying the fact that she’s one of the most talented Native American actors to have graced the screen.
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7. Eddie Spears
Another extremely talented Native American actor who’s yet to make his mark in Hollywood, Eddie Spears is perhaps best known for his lead role in the 2004 Rick Schroder flick ‘Black Cloud’. As part of his preparation for the character, he wen through rigorous training from Jimmy Gambia in order to perfect his boxing abilities and bring more authenticity to the role. For his performance in the film, he won the Best Actor at the Phoenix Film Festival. Spears is one of the hardest working actors in the industry, but for some reason his career hasn’t really taken off, which is a shame considering he is now at the absolute peak of his abilities.
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6. Floyd Westerman
Another leading Native American figure in Hollywood, Floyd Westerman was a musician and activist before venturing out into cinema. At the age of 54, he made his acting debut in the action flick ‘Renegades’ directed by Jack Sholder, where he played the character of Red Crow, which would later go on to become part of his identity. He has also had major parts in ‘Dancing With the Wolves’ and ‘The Doors’. Apart from cinema, he has also received high critical praise for his works in television, including his portrayal of George in ‘Dharam & Greg’, ‘Texas Ranger’ and ‘The X-Files’. Westerman, at one point, was one of the major Native American figures in cinema, and his flair for drama remains unmatched.
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5. Jason Momoa
Arguably the most underrated actor on this list, Jason Momoa is perhaps widely known for his portrayal of Khal Drogo in the iconic television series, ‘Game of Thrones‘. Momoa had complete command over the character, and it has almost made it impossible for us to imagine any other actor don the role of Drogo. His physicality, raw acting skills and commanding screen presence made him just the perfect fit for the role. He also starred as Conan in ‘Conan and the Barbarian’, and though the film was downright mediocre on so many levels, his performance was commendable. Momoa has remarkable screen presence, inspiring range, and is an extremely hardworking actor who submits himself entirely to the role he plays.
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4. Zahn McClarnon
Nobody’s gonna forget Zack McClarnon’s turn as Hanzee Dent in ‘Fargo‘ anytime soon. With his bizarre charisma and creepy demeanor, McClarnon managed to get into the skin of the character, turning it into one of the most memorable villains ever portrayed on television. McClarnon’s impeccable acting skills have landed him some amazing works in television. His performance as Akecheta in ‘Westworld‘ might just be one of the greatest performances in television in recent times. Though he has proved his mettle in television, it’s time Hollywood finally recognise the genius of this man.
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3. Russell Means
Best known for his roles in ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ and ‘Natural Born Killers’, Russell Means was one of the most prominent Native American actors of his times. A political activitst before venturing into Hollywood, Means was a revered figure among the Natives and the Hollywood fraternity for his contribution to cinema and for actively working towards the betterment of the indigenous peoples across the globe. As an actor, he had charisma, range, and a voice that was instantly striking. He may not have gotten enough opportunities to explore his true range as an actor, but once could always feel his presence whenever he was onscreen, even in many of his cameos.
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2. Will Sampson
Widely known for his iconic role in Milos Forman’s unforgettable ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest‘, Will Sampson was noted for his unusual height, enigmatic screen presence, and emotional range. For his role in the Milos Forman classic, Rodeo announce Mel Lambert recommended him to the producers of the film, who then selected him on the basis of an interview despite his lack of experience in acting. He has since played a variety of roles, most notably in ‘Poltergeist II: The Other Side’ and ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’. Apart from being an actor, Sampson was also a noted painter, whose works were displayed at the Gilcrease Museum and the Philbrook Museum of Art.
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1. Wes Studi
Arguably one of the greatest Native American actors of all time, Wes Studi is known to have played some of the most memorable Native American characters in films like ‘The Last of the Mohicans’, ‘Street Fighter’, ‘Dancing With the Wolves’ and ‘The New World’. As an actor, his chameleon like ability to transform himself on screen is remarkable, and it puts him in a league of his own. Studi understands his characters in a way that few actors do, and the amount of compassion he throws into them makes his portrayals more human and vulnerable. He gave a tribute to military films at the Oscars in 2017 and went onto become the second Native American actor in history to anchor the high profile event. Studi, in my opinion, deservedly gets the top position on the list. His sheer range, and the ability to immerse himself in the character just puts him well and truly above his contemporaries.
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