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Struggle to the Top Inspires Adam Beach

Adam Beach as Nat Colorado in Cowboys & Aliens.

Adam Beach as Nat Colorado in Cowboys & Aliens.

timothy white / courtesy universal studios and dreamworks ii distribution co., llc

He is perhaps the best-known face of any native american, star of films including Flags of Our Fathers, Windtalkers, Smoke Signals and this summer’s blockbuster, Cowboys & Aliens, as well as dozens of television roles. It could all go to one’s head, but Adam Beach (Saulteaux of the Dog Creek First Nation of Canada) remains bonded to his Indian brotherhood and Native values. Almost ceaselessly on the go, he pursues a top-level acting career while devoting tremendous energy and time to trying to improve the condition of his fellow Native Americans, especially the younger generation. A doting father to his young daughter, he is nevertheless quick with a smile and always ready for the next big project.

We recently were able to snatch a few hours from his busy schedule while he was in Albuquerque to speak to a student group and help with a fundraiser. Traveling with his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Phoenix and his buddy and fellow actor Brandon Oakes, Beach plopped down in a chair for a few smokes to chat as we looked out over the city toward the Sandia Mountains.

(l to r) director Jon Favreau and actors sam rockwell and adam beach review takes on the set of Cowboys & Aliens. (zade rosenthal / courtesy universal studios and dreamWorks ii distribution co., llc.)What do you remember of your childhood?

Brief moments. I don’t remember too much of it because the bad side of it overcame all of the good. My parents passed away when I was eight years old. They died two months apart. My mom was hit by a drunk driver and she was eight months’ pregnant. Then my dad drowned. And previous to their death, I was growing up with sexual abuse in the community and other problems. So for me, their death was kind of symbolic. But it actually saved me because I was plucked out of the community and moved to Winnipeg with my two brothers to live with my uncle’s family.

I didn’t grow up within the traditional ceremonial life of my tribe. I knew something about it, but I started really learning when I was 16, when I made friends with some folks who were teaching kids about another side of being Indian that wasn’t linked to living in impoverished neighborhoods, being part of a gang, and the other negatives of city life.

When did you start to aspire to be an actor?

The process began when I was 14, at Gordon Bell High School. It was really more of a joke, an opportunity for all of our friends to be together in one class, fart around and have fun. Then they all moved to another school, but I stayed in drama. I joined a volunteer theater group (Manitoba Theatre for Young People), whose purpose was to take underprivileged kids needing attention and to teach them acting. That was my training. That led, in 1990, to a role in the film Lost in the Barrens (based on the Farley Mowat novel). It was a slow evolution. I never had high hopes because I didn’t want to disap- point myself. But I felt I was in it for the long haul. I had motivation for it, like I had motivation for hockey as a kid.

I’ve been lucky. It’s hard to find good projects that cater to Native actors or characters, and even harder to find parts outside of standard roles, and I’ve been able to pick up a few of those as well. I’ve had enough experience now that I’m the go-to guy when it comes to a big Native project.

What do you consider your greatest performance to date?

I’d say Flags of Our Fathers (the story of the men who raised the U.S. flag on the island of Iwo Jima in World War II, including Pima Indian Ira Hayes, and the subsequent fame that followed them). Emotionally, I brought attention to the chaos, despair, trials and tribulations of soldiers. Everyone who goes to war is affected by it. Personally, it hurt a lot to do that film. You take on something as dramatic as Ira Hayes, after work you still think about it and cry yourself to sleep. You want to be able to fall into the life you’re portraying in the storytelling, and some are deeper than others. When you are working you require as much focus as you can put together and it’s constantly with you wherever you are until the movie is done.

You get to try on different personalities. It can be pretty cool. Right now I’m doing a TV show we are calling Combat Hospital (13 episodes beginning in June on ABC). I play a Special Forces character working in Afghanistan training Afghani soldiers. I’d love to play a hit man, and my buddy wrote a script for me (working title Paper Games). We are going to shoot it this year. I’m always looking for characters that could be of any ethnicity, and to work in many genres.

Do you prefer working in film or television?

I prefer film because you have an opportunity to help with character development—there is some creative control. With TV, particularly serials, there is a real tight time limit and so you put the effort into what is on the paper.

How do you work? What methods do you use, and is it hard to memorize lines?

The lines are the least worry. Without emotion or thought backing those words, you are doing nothing. The hardest part is emotion- ally and thoughtfully creating a moment to stimulate those words. Sometimes it requires research, sometimes it needs delving into your own life experiences, sometimes it follows ‘Method Acting,’ sometimes putting it all together. As for memorizing lines, I have a routine. I just write one long run-on sentence of my scene and repeat it until I’m comfortable with it, then I can provide an emotional charge behind [the lines] to make them come alive, which you do on set.

What do you think of Hollywood’s portrayal of Indians and Indian topics? Is the situation improving?

If you look at a business platform of Hollywood, Natives don’t amount to a large part of the pie. We are less than 1 percent of the U.S. populace, so why would they even consider making films that cater to us? Yet, when it comes to the values of our culture, traditions and teachings, you can see them in lots of movies, like Avatar. They will always find a way to pass on these teachings through film. But one of these days our Native people will create our own miniature Hollywood. There is enough money in Indian Country now that we can develop a film fund of half a billion dollars. Why can’t we work together to take a piece of that pie? I am helping create a film school now so that Native kids have a place where they can learn how to make films. It’s going to be on the Cowichan Nation on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. We hope to have it functioning next year.

I also operate the Open Vision Network on cable TV. We will soon begin airing live pay-per-view concerts and a series of documentaries on Canadian reserves I will begin shooting this summer. I am going to visit many of them coast to coast, speaking to kids and showing what life is like there—the good, the bad, the conflicts and the resolutions. Open Vision is also open to others to provide content.

Will you work until you die?

Yeah! I’ll always love making movies, and I am fortunate that because of my ethnicity I can always play the ‘wise old Indian man’ when I’m in my 80s.

A few years ago you ran for chief of your tribe but lost. Any aspirations to run again?

No. I quickly came to realize that relocating myself to become chief of my nation would keep me in a much smaller circle—that I can do far more work and greater good in the world in my present state.

Tell us a bit about the work you do outside of filmmaking.

My real focus is the younger generation of Natives, who need to look at themselves as the future leaders, to lead us to a positive place. That’s about all I do in my free time, when I’m not being a father. When I have time, or if someone really needs me, I’m available. There are conflicts now within our tribes, where the leaders are having trouble connecting with the younger generation. Our reservations are still run in an old-school manner. They are protecting themselves from outside governments, from the experiences we went through in the boarding-school era, from the past. We have to realize the younger generation has opportunities now to excel, if they can receive off- reservation assistance. There is this idea among many older leaders that if you are not going to stay on our reservation, we aren’t going to help you. I wouldn’t be who I am now if I hadn’t left the reservation. I had get out of Dodge, to pursue and prepare myself for a world I never knew existed.

a younger adam beach reveals the intense focus that has carried him forward. (courtesy industry entertainment)What do you consider the greatest challenge facing Native people today?

Among young people, there is a lack of cultural identity. When you look at the mission of boarding schools to impose cultural genocide, you can say that on some reservations, it’s worked. We need to get this back. We need to pay respect to those ancestors who lived and died to sustain what we have.

In general, Native people must work together. There is strength in numbers. We are slowing ourselves down by not working tribe to tribe. Let’s take the money we are investing in Wall Street and keep it, manage it ourselves and put our own people to work. There is a lot of greed in Indian Country when money is involved. There is a lot of competition in families and between families. It creates a stalemate where nobody moves. But people are comfortable with that. I see reservations as a circle, and over the past 100 years we’ve built walls around the circle, not letting anybody in or out.

And, there is a lot of shady stuff we have to get past, like the boarding schools and the efforts to stop Native women having babies and taking them away. There has always been a process of assimila- tion aimed at us—never a respect of who we are. We have always been a threat to other governments and they are continually stand- ing in our way of development. It’s time people begin respecting. We have an ancestral right to these lands going back thousands and thousands of years. They are ours but we want to share, because there must be a balance between people, and between people and nature. It’s unfortunate that for the past 200 years people have been teaching us not to be Indian. Over the next 200 years, we need to teach people how to be Indian.

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Comments, page 1 of 2 1 2 Next »
Aug 12, 2011 05:37 pm
 Posted by  PrNz

I love how you answer questions that were given to you and the answer you gave have such a passion within itself. I like your outlook for our native people, I am not from your tribe but I am Native American Indian from The Navajo Tribe. I have always been interested in your acting and followed you in article you have been interview in. My most favoritie movie you were in was Windtalker. I hope to see you more in movies in the future. Just wanted to let you know how you have a passion and you have inspire other native american to achieve their goal that they have for themself. God Bless you Mr. Adam Beach. May the spirit of our fathers strengthen you throught life.

Sep 26, 2011 12:36 am
 Posted by  bannockson

It's exactly like you say on my reservation in Fort Hall. I too grew up in the city and know all about the negative aspects and how our own native communities are so close-minded towards helping their own people that live in the urban ares that they think the rez is the only life that they know and end up growing up to stereotypes and do not have a mind of their own. The reservation as I see it is nothing more than a piece of land with boundries, a cage that very few ever get away from. They are so tricked into believing a lie that they accept the "status quo" Not me. My ancestors never lived like that they were free to go whereever they wanted. It's a shame that the younger generation has to suffer the decisions made by our so called leaders. The younger generation in the city need all the help they can get.

Oct 23, 2011 01:12 pm
 Posted by  Auroralights

I am so encouraged by your story that is so simlar to mine, and it has helped me realize my past doesn't have to hold me a prisoner, and I well chose to fly again like an Eagle, and not be under any ones dictator ship because they are afraid that I well take back whats rightfully mine, my native pride, smiling from my heart.. Thanks
Respectfully your KUUTAH GAWN. Alaskan native woman from 3 tribes half Tsimshean, 1/4 Tlinget/Haida.. and from the Tsimshean Killerwhale clan.

Dec 6, 2011 03:21 pm
 Posted by  Chief eagle spirit dancing

I admire your tenacity and your willingness to help native peoples. I am a cherokee indian who did not find out about my heritage until i was 25 yrs of age. i am of a mixed background black and cherokee, but was always mistaken for hispanic, latino etc. I have one problem with your comment regarding the miseducation of indians with regards to our very being. The generalization of "peoples trying to keep us from being indian" I believe this paints a broad picture when we as indian people know who was responsible for our pain and suffering. Please be specific when it comes to our history because in reality when we were and still are being taught that from white people, christopher Columbus, george washington were great men to be revered.


Chief eagle spirit

Jun 14, 2012 04:33 pm
 Posted by  Jaime H.

Yes, lets spend the next 200 years teaching them how to be indian. Maybe then some real good can be accomplished not just locally, but globally.

Jaime Hutto

Jun 14, 2012 04:33 pm
 Posted by  Jaime H.

Yes, lets spend the next 200 years teaching them how to be indian. Maybe then some real good can be accomplished not just locally, but globally.

Jaime Hutto

Aug 21, 2012 08:26 am
 Posted by  PearlBoswell

I'm so happy Native Americans are being portrayed better in film. I love all the stuff you have been in. Thank you for being such a positive roll model for our younger native children. They need good roll models to look to and you have done so much positive for our people's. I grew up in the 60's and it was so hard at that time. One of my earliest memories was when I was 5 years old, I was at a park and an old white woman came out of her house to yell at me. She told me to go back to the reservation where I came from. I guess it was that day when mama & daddy both sat us down to teach us a bit about who we were & that we need to be proud of it even tho other people may say things to hurt us. My siblings & I are half Indian but both our parents always taught us to be proud of who we were. And I have passed that to my kids.
Keep doing your work & thank you for sharing your talent with us all. :-)
Pearl Boswell
Portland, Oregon
Grand Ronde Tribes
Umpqua Indian

Jun 19, 2013 05:29 am
 Posted by  Shieldwolf

I wish to thank ye fer yer fantastic acting, and aboriginal, and American (Not indian) support! The Gaelics (Scots, Ires, and Pics) also believe in yer stance in this world ("Let the Valley Wolf lead ye to water each sunrise") You are heading in the perfect direction m8!

Sep 12, 2013 06:53 pm
 Posted by  nativetiwa

hello adam....so like ur story and agree with u on a lot of what u say...I myself didn't find out about my heritage until recently and im fascinated about finding info about my mothers tribe which is 'tiwa"they are located in las cruses ,new mexico....I admire ur strength for going after ur dreams.i think ur a very handsome indian and wish u much luck and happiness in ur career.may god bless u....best regards nativetiwa..[Carmen]

Nov 11, 2013 11:44 pm
 Posted by  miss minx

Just a stop by to wish Adam a slightly belated happy birthday for yesterday, and to comment on how good this interview is. Pretty much the same story I've been trying to spread on Facebook, though, until today, I hadn't read this particular interview. It distresses me that Adam's message to the young people is being dissed by someone who was close to him - it is hurting those young people. Take it from a (white) great-auntie, the vast majority of your family is proud of the path you have taken, Adam! It is so much better not to have been idle in the first place than to be Idle no More. :-)
Roberta Beach

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