Published on February 19, 2012 by Amy
Wesley “Wes” Studi (born December 17, 1947) is an American actor of Cherokee ancestry, who has earned notability for his portrayal of Native Americans in film.
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He has appeared in well-received Academy Award-winning films, such as Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves, Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992), the award-winning Geronimo: An American Legend (1993) and the Academy Award-nominated film The New World (2005). He most recently portrayed General Linus Abner (an analogue to the biblical Abner) in the NBC series Kings, and Eytukan in James Cameron’s box office blockbuster Avatar.
Studi was born into the Cherokee Nation as Wesley Studi in No Fire Hollow, Oklahoma, a rural area near Tahlequah named after his mother’s family. He is the son of Maggie Studie, a housekeeper, and Andy Studie, a ranch hand. Until he attended grade school, he spoke only Cherokee at home. Studi went away for high school at the Chilocco Indian Agricultural School, a boarding school in Northern Oklahoma.
In 1967, he was drafted into the Army and served 18 months in Vietnam. After his discharge, Studi became politically active and participated in the Wounded Knee Incident at Pine Ridge Reservation in 1973. After returning to Oklahoma, he studied at Tulsa Junior College.
He taught classes in the Cherokee language and syllabary (writing system), and helped found a Cherokee-language newspaper. He went into ranching. After his marriage ended in divorce, Studi left ranching and started to study acting – a friend had recommended it as a place to meet women.
Studi became an actor. He appeared in his first film, The Trial of Standing Bear, in 1988. He is best known for his roles as ruthless Indian warriors, such as the Pawnee in Dances with Wolves (1991), and Magua in The Last of the Mohicans (1992).
A year later, he was cast with Eric Schweig for TNT’s film The Broken Chain, about the Iroquois League based in present-day New York state. It was shot in Virginia. This was part of a group of productions shown over 14 months on TNT, as its Native American initiative, including three television movies and several documentaries. A six-hour history series was told from the Indians perspective.
In 1993 Studi had the lead in Geronimo: An American Legend. He showed a talent for comedy as the superhero Sphynx in the 1999 film Mystery Men. In 2002, Studi brought to life the character of Lt. Joe Leaphorn, for a series of PBS movies based on Tony Hillerman’s novels set in the Southwest among the Navajo and Hopi. It was produced by Robert Redford.
In 2005, Studi portrayed a character based on the Powhatan chief Opechancanough in The New World, directed by Terrence Malick. It was nominated for the 2005 Academy Awards.
On April 20, 2009 Studi appeared as Major Ridge, a leader of the Cherokee before removal to Indian Territory, in Trail of Tears, the third episode of five in the PBS series We Shall Remain, portraying critical episodes in Native American history after European encounter. The ground-breaking mini-series affirms Native history as an essential part of American history, and is part of the public television’s acclaimed series American Experience. Studi spoke only his native Cherokee in his performance.
At the opposite pole of historic drama, in 2009, Studi also appeared in James Cameron’s science fiction epic, Avatar. He played Eytukan, the chieftain of a Na’vi tribe called the Omaticaya clan.
In Santa Fe, Studi serves as honorary chair of the national endowment campaign of the Indigenous Language Institute.
After an early marriage and divorce, Studi married again. He and his wife have three children, and in the 1990s moved to a ranch near Santa Fe, New Mexico.