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January/February 2021 -   -  

American Indian actor and Vietnam veteran Wes Studi was named one of “The Century’s Greatest Actors” by The New York Times in November.

A recipient of VVA’s Excellence in the Arts Award at the 2017 New Orleans Convention, Studi, a Cherokee Indian, served in the Army in Vietnam with the 3/39th Infantry. He saw service in the bush, as part of Navy riverine operations, and in the Cholon section of Saigon. Studi was profiled in these pages in the March/April 2015 issue, where he recalled a teacher in a reservation school telling him and other Indian children to expect nothing more from life than working as laborers or farm hands.

Studi had other ideas. Back home and in college, he filled out a semester’s schedule with an elective—stagecraft. From there, he moved on to acting and never looked back.

After work in local theater and in public television, Studi decided to make the leap and try the movies. “It was tough to get traction,” he said, but eventually he was cast in Powwow Highway, one of the first Hollywood films to treat the lives of American Indians with respect and integrity. In 1990 Studi appeared in Dances with Wolves, and in 1992 was cast in Last of the Mohicans as the story’s proud and compelling antagonist, Magua. Studi has said that he drew in part on his combat training to realize the character of Magua, his breakout role.

In addition to The Times list and the VVA Excellence in the Arts Award, Studi has received many other honors, including an honorary Oscar in 2019, given annually to celebrate film achievement not covered by an existing Academy Award.

In our 2015 profile of Studi, he suggested that acting should be included among the therapeutic options for veterans struggling with post-service life and past traumas. Like wartime service, he said, “acting is something done out on the edge of one’s courage and resolve.” It’s a place that veterans know well, Studi said, and if revisited without the physical risk of combat it can serve as a potent form of therapy.

According to The New York Times, “Wes Studi has one of the screen’s most arresting faces anchored with penetrating eyes that insist you match their gaze.” As an actor, The Times said, Studi “shows you the mask and what lies beneath, both the thinking and the feeling.”

To bring both elements to a performance is the epitome of an actor’s craft, and Wes Studi—American Indian and Vietnam veteran—has clearly mastered his art.




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