Struggle to the Top Inspires Adam Beach
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.
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.
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.