At some point, every Native American actor comes to a career crossroads and has to answer the question: Do I participate in stereotyping or maintain my cultural integrity?
As a Navajo man, I answered that question early in my acting career. Fresh out of Yale with a bachelor’s degree in film studies, I moved to Albuquerque in 2010 when the New Mexican film industry was booming. To build up my resume, I took on parts in various short films—including one memorable role as an “Indian” shaman.
Acting parts for Native Americans are few and far between, so I felt I couldn’t say no to the gig. But as I climbed into the feathered costume and began to apply “war paint” to my face, I began to feel very uncomfortable. Even though I’m not of a Plains tribe (as of 2013, the number of federally recognized tribes in the U.S. was 566), I knew that this kind of regalia was not meant for casual, every-day wear. For many tribes, including mine, feathers are sacred.
Looking at myself in the mirror in full costume, I felt shameful for mocking my spirituality. I promised myself I’d never play “Indian” again—and since then have turned down several auditions for big budget films.