American Spirit: Amber Midthunder to Jason Momoa, top Native American actors who made it big in Hollywood

Despite the industry's shortcomings, a myriad of Native American talents have emerged over the years and continue to make ground-breaking achievements


                            American Spirit: Amber Midthunder to Jason Momoa, top Native American actors who made it big in Hollywood
(Getty Images)

Film is a powerful medium that has helped disseminate educated truths about society in a more feasible and comprehensible format. Hollywood has come very far since its inception, and the rise of mass media coupled with popular culture has given rise to a collective consciousness. Yet it stills severely lacks in diversity. The industry has a history of inaccurate representation, particularly of Native Americans since the bygone times, be it the fictionalization of the truth or overgeneralization of the culture.

As times have evolved, the industry has become more dynamic by welcoming changes in their prospect but there is still much to be achieved in terms of honest depiction of native culture in mainstream media. As a minority, the Indigenous peoples’ struggles, progress, and way of life have often been reflected in popular culture, in turn subjecting them to various stereotypes. Diversity is an important conversation that has taken over the industry in recent times. Hollywood, in particular, has been known to white-wash characters that are deemed as Native American, especially in films that promote diversity. But more has to be done to ensure that American Indians are fairly represented in the industry’s diversity talking point. 

Despite the industry's shortcomings, a myriad of Native American talents have emerged over the years and continue to make ground-breaking achievements setting a precedent for actors hailing from various ethnicities and racial groups. Here are some of the most celebrated Native-American actors in Hollywood.

Amber Midthunder

Amber Midthunder attends the Premiere of Orion Pictures and United Artists Releasing's 'Child's Play' at ArcLight Hollywood on June 19, 2019, in Hollywood, California (Getty Images)

Midthunder is the series regular on FX's popular series 'Legion' and stars in the role of Kerry Loudermilk. She also appeared on the television shows 'Longmire' and 'Banshee'. Her major film credits include 'Priceless', 'Spare Parts', and 'Hell or High Water'. Midthunder is the daughter of actor, David Midthunder and casting director, Angelique Midthunder. She is Native American on her father's side and both are enrolled members in the Fort Peck Sioux Tribe. Her mother, however, is adopted, so Midthunder is of unknown mixed ancestry. 

Jason Momoa

Jason Momoa attends the world premiere of Apple TV+'s 'See' at Fox Village Theater on October 21, 2019, in Los Angeles, California (Getty Images)

Momoa is best known for playing Khal Drogo in the cult favorite television adaptation of 'Game of Thrones'. Momoa is of mixed descent, his father being native Hawaiian, and his mother of German-Scottish ancestry. He won the title of Hawaii Model of the Year in 1999, which earned him a role on Baywatch Hawaii. He also starred as the titular character in the film 'Conan', the remake film of the character from Arnold Schwarzenneger's 'Conan the Barbarian'. Most recently he has appeared as Arthur Curry or Aquaman in the DC Universe films 'Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice', 'Justice League' and 'Aquaman'. He is also the lead in the Apple TV+ series 'See'.

Zahn McClarnon

Actor Zahn McClarnon attends AMC's 'The SON' premiere at ArcLight Hollywood on April 3, 2017, in Hollywood, California (Getty Images)

McClarnon is a Native American actor hailing from the Lakota tribe and is of half-Irish descent. He plays Akecheta in HBO's 'Westworld'. Although born and brought up in Denver, Colorado, he has lived in various places in the West, including his maternal grandparents' home at the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana. McClarnon started acting in high-school and is professional best known for his critically acclaimed performance as Police Chief Mathias in the Western crime drama series 'Long Mire', as well as portraying Hanzee Dent in the second season of 'Fargo'.

Chaske Spencer

Actor Chaske Spencer attends the Staples Do Something 101 School Supply Drive at Children's Aid Society Dunlevy Milbank Boys and Girls Club on August 4, 2009, in New York City (Getty Images)

Spencer was born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and grew up in Montana, Kooskia, Lapwai, and Lewiston, Idaho. He is a Native American actor whose heritage includes Perce, Cherokee, Creek, Lakota, French, and Dutch. He is a member of the Fort Peck Tribe. He has been acting since he was a young teen and struggled with doing odd jobs. He took acting lessons from coaches like David Gideon and Ed Kovens, eventually getting a role in the 2002 film 'Skins'. That led to 'Dreamkeeper' and 'Into the West'. In 2009, Spencer portrayed the werewolf Sam Uley in 'New Moon' from the 'Twilight Saga'. He also played Mr Pfieffer in 'The Society' 

Booboo Stewart

Booboo Stewart attends the World Premiere of Disney’s 'Maleficent: Mistress of Evil' at the El Capitan Theatre on September 30, 2019, in Hollywood, California (Getty Images)

Stewart is primarily known for his role as Seth Clearwater in 'The Twilight Saga'. He is of mixed descent, as his mother has Japanese, Chinese and Korean ancestry, and his father has Russian, Scottish and Blackfoot ancestry. Stewart was eventually tapped in by Disney, where he starred in shows like 'Good Luck Charlie' and the film 'Descendants,' where he played Jay, the son of Jafar. In 2010, he was named a Celebrity Ambassador by the Muscular Dystrophy Association for helping raise awareness in the fight against muscle disease. 

Q'Orianka Kilcher

Q'orianka Kilcher attends the LA Premiere of Paramount Pictures' 'Dora And The Lost City Of Gold' at Regal Cinemas LA Live on July 28, 2019, in Los Angeles, California (Getty Images)

Kilcher is known for her roles as Pocahontas in the 2005 film 'The New World' and Ka'iulani in 'Princess Kaiulani', which released in 2009.  She is a German-born American-Peruvian actress, singer, and activist. She was raised in California and Hawaii, Her father is of Quechua-Huachipaeri descent from Peru, and her mother, who is of Swiss-German descent was born in Alaska and raised in Switzerland. Growing up in Hawaii, she was taken in by the local culture and started hula dancing at 5 years old. She is also trained in Tahitian and West-African dance, as well as ballet, hip hop, and modern dance. In 2019 Kilcher appeared in the adventure film 'Dora and the Lost City of Gold' as the Inca princess.

Kiowa Gordon

Kiowa Gordon attends the 4th annual Roger Neal Oscar Viewing Dinner Icon Awards and after-party at Hollywood Palladium on February 24, 2019, in Los Angeles, California (Getty Images)

Gordon was born in Berlin, Germany but grew up in Arizona. He is part of the Hualapai Nation, located in Northern Arizona. He is best known for portraying Embry Call in 'New Moon', the second installment in 'The Twilight Saga' series. In 2014 he starred in the horror-thriller, 'Wind Walkers', based on a Native American Urban legend. Gordon starred in 'An Act of War' which was released on Netflix in 2015.

Tonantzin Carmelo

Tonantzin Carmelo (IMDb)

Carmelo descends on her mother's side from Tongva and Kumeyaay Native Americans of Southern California. She grew up performing in a Native American dance troupe led by her mother and got into acting during college. She has appeared in several theater productions and independent films. Some of her well-known stage roles include Anita in 'Examagare', Christina Kahlo/Paula in 'Frida Kahlo', and many characters in Malinche. She also starred in the feature film 'King Rikki' with Jon Seda and Mario López. Carmelo is a traditional Aztec dancer and pre-Columbian musician. In 2006, she was nominated for the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries for her performance as Thunder Heart Woman in 'Into the West'.

Gil Birmingham

Gil Birmingham attends the premiere of Warner Bros Pictures' 'Doctor Sleep' at Westwood Regency Theater on October 29, 2019, in Los Angeles, California (Getty Images)

Birmingham is best known for his portrayal of Bill Black, Jacob's father in 'The Twilight Saga' series. He played Chief Thomas Rainwater in 'Yellowstone' and recurring roles as George Hunter in 'Banshee', as well as Virgil White in 'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt'. Birmingham was born to a Comanche family in San Antonio, Texas. His family moved around frequently during his childhood as his father served in the military. He also a musician and learned to play the guitar at a young age. 

American Spirit is a campaign on the issues faced by the Native American Community in America. Over the next few days, this column will feature stories of determination, triumph, legacy and redemption.

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