Warrior Women and the Indian Actors Workshop

Curator's Note

In my essay, “Warrior Women: Warrior Women and the Indian Actors Workshop: Uncovering Indigenous Visions for Film and Activism,” (JCMS) I offer a cultural history of the Indian Actors Workshop--an LA area space created by Eddie Little Sky and Jay Silverheels to train Native American actors in honing their craft, which also gave rise to a renewed sense of community for Native people living in diaspora and finding their way in Hollywood. Drawing on theory and methods of leading Indigenous scholars, such as Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Michelle Raheja, Mishuana Goeman, and others, I discuss the activism of Native actresses Sacheen Littlefeather and Lois Red Elk. Both had close ties to the Workshop. In addition to archival research, this project is built on oral histories with both Littlefeather and Red Elk, and honors engaging in "deep and reciprocal Indigeneity" as a "transformative act" that, according to Simpson, "changes modes of production of our lives."(As We Have Always Done, 19)  The stories of these figures, as warrior women in Hollywood, offer deep engagements with an expanded understanding of what constitutes Indian Country. In speaking with them, I see the development of relationships of reciprocity and coresistance in the Indigenous communities they inhabited. What follows are brief excerpts from the essay published in the Journal for Media and Cinema Studies.

For Natives living in diaspora, to create islands of Indigeneity outside of the spatial constructs of settler-colonialism is essential to survival and resurgence.[i] The exchange of stories between Littlefeather, Red Elk, and myself, as Native women, is a (re)mapping of the history of entertainment, Indigenous activism, and urbanity. By recording and circulating their stories we collectively practice solidarity to create Indigenous visions for the future.[ii] In building my own relationships with them, based on ethics of care, respect, and reciprocity, and a deep-understanding that “We are all related, and this is all Indigenous land,”[iii] I have gained new connections and insights to add to an Indigenous body of knowledge concerning Native acting and activism as well as my own embodied knowledge concerning my great-grandfather’s history as an actor and activist. I am indebted to Littlefeather for gifting me with time, stories, and teachings. Such teachings emerge out of particular lived-experiences and must be understood within this context. Through oral history interviews, I became connected to both Littlefeather and Red Elk, but I also came to this project through an older web of relations, and in search of new understandings about the life and activism of my great-grandfather, the Dakota actor: Shooting Star. As a Native cultural historian, my research depends on building ethical relationships with my subjects, whether they are living or not. So, I must approach my work with a deep sense of respect and responsibility for the Native voices and stories I recover. Like Simpson, I am invested in learning that is complex and which can take place within a networked system of Indigenous intelligence.[vi] “Networked because the modes of communication and interaction between beings occur in complex nonlinear forms, across time and space.”[vii]

I highlight contributions by Native people to American society that account for complexity and even contradiction to offer a fuller understanding of settler-colonialism and Indigenous constellations of coresistance, since colonizers come to stay, to destroy in order to replace.[viii] As Patrick Wolfe argues, “invasion is a structure, not an event.”[ix] Thus, I look for the strategies that Indigenous peoples have always used to resist the imposition of colonial structures onto and into their lives from the past to the present. The warrior women in my essay accessed a range of arenas, social spaces, cultural performances, and work sites, to generate knowledge and share stories of survivance.[x] Through their engagement with Indigenous networks of actors and activists, they contributed to counter-narratives, as acts of refusal, to produce their own stories. Both Littlefeather and Red Elk were actively involved in “Native hubs,” which constituted LA’s pan-tribal community. These were critical sites for urban Indians living in diaspora, in terms of social activity, community building, job training, and political activism. Jay Silverheels (Mohawk) and Eddie Little Sky (Oglala Lakota) created a critical “hub,” in the late 1960s, with the Indian Actors Workshop. It was designed to support Native actors looking to perfect their craft, with the hope of finding work beyond the stereotypical Western. During our interviews, both Littlefeather and Red Elk found belonging in this space. In addition to the Workshop, there were other “hubs of networked relationships”[xi] that emerged in Los Angeles through fiestas, Indian clubs and centers, pow-wows, and expos intersected in empowering ways for urban Indian people. Such “hubs” enabled an Indigenous internationalism to circulate throughout LA where Indigenous peoples reimagined systemic alternatives to colonial approaches to work, culture, and politics. In addition to Simpson’s work, I build on Renya Ramirez’s discussion of Native hubs as purposeful and important for Indigenous living in urban areas where Natives found multiple ways to “transmit culture, create community, and maintain identity.”[xii] For Littlefeather and Red Elk, a career in the entertainment industry was as much about Hollywood as it was about Indian Country.

[i] Mishauna Goeman, Mark My Words: Native Women Mapping Our Nations (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013)

[ii] Simpson, 66.

[iii] Simpson, 81.

[iv] Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 32.

[v] Simpson, 156.

[vi] Simpson, 14.

[vii] Simpson, 23.

[viii] Simpson, 231.

[ix] Patrick E. Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and The Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research, Vol. 8 No. 4 (2006), 388.

[x] Gerald Vizenor, Manifest Manners, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999), 5.

[xi] Simpson, 44.

[xii] Renya K. Ramirez, Native Hubs: Culture, Community, and Belonging in Silicon Valley and Beyond (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 2.

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