The first Native American actor to win an Academy Award first appeared on a Tulsa stage in his 30s, appeared in his first movie in his 40s and is still one of Hollywood’s busiest performers in his 70s.

The first Native American actor to win an Oscar is Wes Studi, the Cherokee from Cherokee County who was — where else? — on a film set last weekend when he learned that he would receive an honorary Academy Award for career achievement at a ceremony later this year.

“So I get this call from the director of the Academy, telling me, ‘We would like to give you an award. I accepted, of course,” Studi told the Tulsa World with a chuckle in a phone conversation from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“I was flabbergasted, and I still am. I hung up the phone, knowing I couldn’t say anything until they made the announcement (on Monday). I went back to work.”

The announcement came, and Studi collected his thoughts to reply on Twitter: “I am deeply honored and humbled. I finally get to say, ‘I’d like to thank the Academy... .’

“The fact that audiences appreciate your work is a very high mark. When it is your peers, other actors, who appreciate your work, that kind of recognition is a very heady thing,” he said by phone.

Studi, who was born in Nofire Hollow and spoke only Cherokee until age 5, will receive his Oscar for career achievement.

That includes roles in Academy Award-winning films like “Dances With Wolves” and “Avatar,” as well as audience hits like “Heat,” the starring role in “Geronimo: An American Legend” and his performance as a dying Indian chief in last year’s “Hostiles” opposite Christian Bale.

“Studi is a Cherokee-American actor who has appeared in more than 30 films, becoming known for portraying strong Native American characters with poignancy and authenticity (and who) became deeply involved with Native American politics and activism after a tour of military service in Vietnam,” the Academy said in its official statement this week.

Following infantry service in the Vietnam delta areas, his activism included joining the 1972 Trail of Broken Treaties march, as well as the American Indian Movement’s 1973 takeover of Wounded Knee in South Dakota.

This year’s honors, to be bestowed at a ceremony in October, are a nod to diversity in ways beyond Studi’s selection that notes his works on- and off-screen.

In addition to Studi and director David Lynch (“Blue Velvet”), an honorary Oscar will go to Lina Wertmuller (the first woman nominated for best director for 1975’s “Seven Beauties”).

Also, a humanitarian award will go to actress Geena Davis, who is the founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and the Bentonville Film Festival, with a goal of supporting women and diversity in entertainment.

The Academy’s Governor’s Board convened Saturday night to vote on this year’s honorees. One of the 54 governors — director Gregory Nava (“Selena”), a friend of Studi — had contacted the actor ahead of the meeting.

“He said he’d like to nominate me, and more than likely a first-time nominee doesn’t get it, and I thought, ‘Sure, why not?’ ” Studi recalled of the conversation with Nava, who also lives in Santa Fe.

“So what happened was quite a surprise. I was like, ‘It worked!’”

Also surprising: Studi was the only one of this year’s honorees who has not been nominated for an Oscar previously — although he’s been noted as a contender more than once, such as for his turn as the fierce and tragic Huron warrior, Magua, in 1992’s “The Last of the Mohicans.”

“Oh well,” Studi said. “That’s showbiz.

“I’m the first Native American actor to receive this honor for a body of work. We still have a step to go with getting an Oscar for a performance.

“If it can’t be me, then I hope this can inspire another Native American to chase that dream because it helps all of us. (This is) a wonderful milestone, and I hope it gives others some hope.”

The congratulations this week have been many for Studi, and he singled out that of “Indian veterans thanking me for having represented both groups of people for so long,” he said.

It was a return of gratitude after Studi, while introducing a tribute to military films at the 2018 Academy Awards, spoke in Cherokee and thanked Native Americans who had served.

“That went well. I got a lot of calls after that,” he said of his impromptu shout-out.

Studi comes home to Oklahoma as often as his schedule will allow to see family, including his mother in Collinsville, for whom a 90th birthday celebration was held in April.

So how big a party will they have to celebrate receiving an Academy Award?

“I haven’t given that any thought,” Studi said, “but I’ve got time.”

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Michael Smith


Twitter: @michaelsmithTW