5 Famous Native American Actors - From Adam Beach to Graham Greene

How these actors have left a mark on Hollywood

Native American actors have been represented in the motion picture industry since the early days of Hollywood. For years, Native Americans have been portrayed in Westerns, albeit in largely stereotypical parts. As time has progressed, American Indians have been given more opportunities to play complex individuals in critically acclaimed films.

Some have gone on to become Oscar and Golden Globe nominees, but to date no American Indian actor has won an Oscar. This list of famous Native Americans captures the career highlights of five veteran indigenous actors. If you don't recognize their names, you might find their faces familiar.

Tantoo Cardinal

Tantoo Cardinal
Actress Tantoo Cardinal at the Tar Sands Healing Walk. Ian MacKenzie/Flickr.com

Actress Tantoo Cardinal was born in Alberta, Canada, on July 20, 1950. Of French and Cree descent, Cardinal is known as a “metis,” the Canadian term for mixed-race aboriginal peoples. Politically active in the 1960s and ’70s, Cardinal entered acting, in part, to change the public’s perceptions of Native Americans.

At the onset of her career, she appeared in productions of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and the Alberta Native Communications Society. Cardinal is best known for her roles in films such as “Dances With Wolves” (1990), “Legends of the Fall” (1994) and “Smoke Signals” (1998) as well as the television show “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.”

Cardinal continues her political activism today. In August 2011, she and actress Margot Kidder were arrested during an environmental protest at the White House.

Graham Greene

Graham Greene
Actor Graham Greene at Toronto Comic Con. GabboT/Flickr.com

Oneida actor Graham Greene was born on June 22, 1952, in Ontario, Canada. In young adulthood, Greene worked as a steelworker, landscaper, factory worker, carpenter and a sound technician. But by the mid 1970s, the acting bug bit him, and he performed in several Toronto theatrical productions.

Greene landed his first major film role in the movie “Running Brave” (1983). Throughout the 1980s, film roles would continue to pour in, most notably as Ongwata in “Revolution” (1985), starring Al Pacino, and a disturbed Vietnam veteran in “Powwow Highway” (1989).

Greene’s career hit a high note when he received an Oscar nod for best supporting actor for his work in “Dances with Wolves” (1990).

Following that dramatic career turn, Greene played notable roles in “Thunderheart” (1992), based on the 1975 Pine Ridge Shootout; “Maverick” (1994), starring Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster; “The Green Mile” (1999) and “Into the West” (2005).

Irene Bedard

Actress Irene Bedard was born on July 22, 1967, in Anchorage, Alaska. Of mixed French Canadian, Cree and Inuit heritage, Bedard began her acting career in theater. She made her film debut in the cable TV film “Lakota Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee” (1994), for which she received critical acclaim. During the same period, Bedard appeared in the Disney feature “Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale” (1994).

She achieved international stardom, however, when she landed the role of Pocahontas in the 1995 Disney feature of the same name. Subsequently, Bedard has nabbed starring roles in “Smoke Signals” (1998) and “Into the West (2005).

In recent years, Bedard has made more headlines for her personal life than for her acting after accusing former husband Denny Wilson of emotional and domestic abuse and asking for the public’s support in her legal battles with Wilson.

Adam Beach

Adam Beach at San Diego Comic Con
Adam Beach at San Diego Comic Con. Gage Skidmore/Flickr.com

Adam Beach was born Nov. 11, 1972, in Ashern, Manitoba, Canada. Of Saulteaux descent, Beach grew up on the Dog Creek Indian Reserve. He and his brothers became orphans after a drunk driver killed his mother, and his father was killed in a boating accident not long afterward. Beach’s aunt and uncle in Winnipeg then raised Beach and his siblings.

As a high school student, Beach showed a capacity for acting in drama class. He soon began to appear in local theatrical productions, eventually leaving school to pursue his craft. By early adulthood, Beach was appearing on Canadian and American television programs alike.

Beach scored a major coup when he landed the starring role in Disney’s “Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale” (1994). His celebrity grew when he starred in the indie smash “Smoke Signals” (1998).

Today, Beach is best known for his roles in “Windtalkers,” (2002) based on the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II, “Flags of Our Fathers,” (2006) and “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” (2007), for which he received a Golden Globe nomination in 2008.

Russell Means

Andy Warhol Portait of Russell Means
Andy Warhol Portait of Russell Means, "The American Indian.". Wally Gobetz/Flickr.com

Actor and activist Russell Means was born Nov. 10, 1939, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He died Oct. 22, 2012.

He became a political activist in the 1960s, eventually emerging as a leader of the American Indian Movement (AIM). As an AIM leader, Means spearheaded the 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee, S.D. in 1973. Two decades later, however, Means turned to acting.

He made his film debut in 1992’s “Last of the Mohicans,” starring Daniel Day-Lewis. Means also scored high-profile roles in Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” (1994), “Pocahontas” (1995) and “Into the West” (2005).

Means faced backlash for appearing in films criticized by the Native American community for historical and cultural inaccuracies. The American Indian Movement distanced itself from Means as he became an acting celebrity, citing his politics. In the late 1980s, Means sought to run as president of the United States on the Libertarian ticket.

AIM also questioned the veracity of Means’ 1996 autobiography "Where White Men Fear to Tread." Before his 2012 death, Means also faced legal troubles.