Twilight Saga Opens Door For Native Actors

By Frank Larue

Graham Greene, the hardest working Native actor in Canada has played many roles during his stellar career. For his excellent work in Dancing with Wolves, he was nominated for an Oscar. He is one of the few Native actors who has portrayed not only Native people in historical pieces, but has also been cast many times in contemporary Native settings such as Thunderheart with Val Kilmer, Die Hard: With a Vengeance alongside Bruce Willis, and The Green Mile with Tom Hanks. His most recent role is in The Twilight Saga: New Moon; he plays Harry Clearwater, a Quileute tribal leader.

The Quileute are actually a real tribe from La Push, Washington, but in the Twilight series, they are tribal werewolves who transform from humans into giant wolves. Graham Greene does not appear in Eclipse, but the actors who play the tribe members remain and will be appearing in the next two sequels. All these actors are Native: Chaske Spencer is from Oklahoma, Tyson Houseman was born in Edmonton, Bronson Pelletier is from Vancouver Island, Kiowa Gordon and Alex Meraz grew up in Arizona. The female werewolves are Tinsley Korey from Vancouver and Julia Jones, who hails from Boston.

They are fortunate to be cast in The Twilight Saga, which has grossed over a billion dollars to date and has made all of the actors stars. What is equally rewarding is the fact they are not portrayed as stereotypical Indians, which is too often the case for Native actors. “I’ve been around for a while,” says Chaske Spencer. “I’ve been working for, like, 10 years, and what I like about [The Twilight Saga] is it finally brought me to a place where I’m not playing with the leather and feather. It’s kind of up to the media as well to accept me as other than being just the mystical figure and put on the leather and feather, and speaking in a Rez accent all the time, because I’ve done that so many times, and the kids are more accepting of me than anything else. That’s what’s really cool.”

Julia Jones plays Leah Clearwater. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and was a model before becoming an actress, and she supports what Spencer said. “That’s also what excites me, is that we’re being put in front of primarily children and people who are in the process of defining their ideas of what Native people are.”

The recent documentary Reel Indians produced and directed by Neil Diamond made the same point, that not only have Native actors been given roles which perpetrate a negative and one dimensional identity, but they usually have no choice but to accept the roles if they want to work in film industry.

Another positive aspect to The Twilight Saga is the interest in Native culture the movies have created. “But now a lot of people are going to Washington state,” said Alex Meraz, the bad tempered member of the wolf pack. “They’re going to La Push where the Quileute tribe actually do reside, and they’re learning more. They’re forced to ask questions, learn more about the culture, and I think that’s great. The Quileute are getting a spotlight to introduce and tell the story, the real creation story. That’s important, that fans are so into it they want to learn where this germinated from, the root of where the wolf pack comes from.”