Canadian First Nation actor Michael Greyeyes plays Sitting Bull, the great Sioux leader, in the summer movie, Woman Walks Ahead.
Greyeyes co-stars with Academy Award-nominee Jessica Chastain, who plays Catherine Weldon, and Academy Award-winner Sam Rockwell, who describes his role as the legendary Sitting Bull as one he was destined to play.
“Playing Sitting Bull is the role of a lifetime, and I am truly honoured that I was chosen to portray this great historical leader. My entire family were, of course, excited and very happy that I got the role,” said Rockwell.
Woman Walks Ahead is about Weldon, a portrait painter from 1880s Brooklyn, New York, who travels to North Dakota to paint a portrait of Sitting Bull and becomes embroiled in the Lakota peoples’ struggle to maintain their right to their land.
I asked Greyeyes about the main challenge playing Sitting Bull. “Trying to play someone who’s larger than life. An actor can’t possibly recreate someone, a whole person, but I wanted to create the mood, the emotional life of the character so that audiences could see what Sitting Bull may have been feeling during that time,” said Greyeyes.
He says studying the Lakota language was also a great challenge in preparing for the role. “I knew some of the history of the period, but what helped me the most was studying the Lakota language. World view is embedded in any language, so as I studied my Lakota dialogue I had to come to understand how cultural meaning was revealed inside the language,” said Greyeyes. “The production provided me with resources, so that was of great help. I also had the guidance of Ben Black Bear, my language instructor. He’s truly an inspiration.”
In the movie, Sam Rockwell plays Silas Groves, the US Army officer who tries his best to sow division among the Sioux to thwart Sitting Bull’s effort to convince his people not to forfeit Sioux land.
The scene where Sitting Bull gives a speech in full Lakota dialogue is one part of the movie that stands out in Greyeye’s memory.
“The commission speech! I felt a lot of pressure to get that scene right. We must have shot that scene 30 times in one day,” said Greyeyes. “I just wanted to get it right because I knew there would be Lakota speakers watching this movie and I wanted to make sure that speech was accurate and truthful, as Sitting Bull was a great orator. It is a significant scene in the film and I wanted to do it justice.”
Catherine Weldon (1844 -1921), was a Swiss-American artist and activist with the National Indian Defense Association. Weldon became a confidante and the personal secretary to the Lakota Sioux Indian leader, Sitting Bull, during the time when Plains Indians had adopted the Ghost Dance movement.
Greyeyes said before he got the script he was not aware of the story between Catherine Weldon and Sitting Bull. “No, I was not aware of her story before I read the script. I am just glad we are able to share this story, as this was a dismal period in American history,” said Greyeyes. “The state wanted Lakota territory and were willing to use violence and starvation to clear the land, so we discover Sitting Bull at this desperate moment in time, caught in a titanic struggle for survival.”
It could be said there are some comparisons to the film and what is happening in today’s Trump Administration so I asked Greyeyes his thought on this issue.
“Unfortunately, there are too many comparisons that can be made to the Trump administration,” said Greyeyes. “We, Indigenous people, have been resistant to the settler agenda since long before the days of Sitting Bull, and we continue to be the resistance today. Everything from the Dakota Access Pipeline to the more recent ethnic hatred around immigration. This is very familiar to us as native people. Sad to see so little has changed.”
Greyeyes said working with both Chastain and Rockwell was a great experience and that both actors had great energy. “It was so wonderful working with Jessica; she is one of the most generous and intelligent actors I’ve ever worked with,” said Greyeyes. “Working with Sam was also a great experience, so hard-working and generous. He worked really hard to learn his Lakota dialogue; he and I would get together to practice on the weekends. They were both incredible collaborators to work with.”
Greyeyes has starred in 31 TV movies and series beginning with his 1993 debut on American television’s movie of the week (MOW), Geronimo. Presently, he plays the role of Qaletaqa Walker, in Fear the Walking Dead.
One movie that sticks out as one of the most memorable for Greyeyes is a 1997 movie of the week. “It was a film I did for CBS, actually a MOW called ‘Stolen Women, Captured Hearts.’ What was interesting about it is that I got the most fan mail, by far, for that movie, back when we actually mailed stuff, before the internet and Facebook,” said Greyeyes. “It reached a world-wide audience, and I received mail from around the world, reminding me that movie had really made an impact to their thinking. It really struck me how important and positive the media is in conveying that history.”
The list of great Native American and Canadian actors like the late Chief Dan George, Will Sampson, and Floyd Red Crow were true idols and actors Greyeyes looks up to. So I asked him if it was tough for him and his contemporaries like Adam Beach, Graham Greene, and Wes Studi, to find good roles as a native actor.
“Really tough to find a good role as an actor. Period,” said Greyeyes. “The native roles are, therefore, even tougher to find, to tell our stories authentically, but the writing is getting better. I played Qaletaqa Walker in ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ and I enjoyed playing that character. He was unusual in that he was both brutal and keenly intelligent at the same time.”
Along with being an actor, Greyeyes is a choreographer, director and educator. He is from the Muskeg Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan. His father was from the Muskeg Lake First Nation and his mother was from the Sweetgrass First Nation, both located in Saskatchewan.
“I grew up in Saskatoon, in Treaty 6 territory, so I didn’t grow up on the rez. But my family and all our relatives were either on reserve or in Battleford, so I was able to spend a lot of time there,” said Greyeyes. “Of course, our band, Muskeg Lake, like many other communities, now has something like 80 percent membership off-reserve.”
Woman Walks Ahead is a good movie and captures a moment in time that many people are probably not aware of. Greyeyes as Sitting Bull is truly a great performance and is worth watching the movie.
Finally, I asked Greyeyes what he hoped audiences will take away from the movie.
“I certainly want people to be aware that Sitting Bull was assassinated, that his death was politically motivated,” said Greyeyes. “Like I said earlier, it was a dismal part of history, a terrible landscape of violence and aggression against our peoples. It is a great opportunity for the film to show this to audiences, allow them inside our struggles, and show them a neglected aspect of this shared history.”