Floyd Red Crow Westerman: Lakota Star (Spring, 1993)

It seems like every time I see my old friend Floyd Red Crow Westerman these days he is in pain from riding horses. When we met recently at Los Colinas Studios in Dallas, Floyd was finishing a massage after returning from three consecutive days of horseback riding sessions in preparation for his role as action film star Chuck Norris' American Indian "uncle" in the CBS Series pilot movie, Walker, Texas Ranger. In the film Floyd must appear as a master, if aged, Indian cowboy. The scene he's preparing for calls for him to ride -with skill and dignity- full speed on horseback and lasso a bad guy. At 57 it isn't difficult to realize why Floyd's spine is feeling the effects of bouncing in the saddle for three days.

When we met in Rapid City, South Dakota in June, 1989 to perform on the first Paha Sapa Music Festival, Floyd had a deep cut over his eyebrow; he got it falling off a horse. In his role as Ten Bears, the wizened Lakota chief in the now legendary Academy Award-winning film, Dances With Wolves, Floyd had to learn to ride bareback in the 19th century style of his Lakota ancestors. Moreover, he had to ride bareback full speed in the most realistic buffalo hunt ever captured on film. Then 53, Floyd worked through many interesting forms of pain perfecting his role as an experienced Lakota buffalo hunter and horseman.

In Dallas, as ever, Floyd's smile welcomed and enchanted me. I always feel better about myself when I'm with "Uncle" Floyd Red Crow Westerman. I think this is because I know that simply encountering Red Crow means that I have somehow managed to be on the same path as a man who has walked his entire life on the Lakota "Good Red Road"; everything is spiritual with "Uncle Floyd". Minutes after greeting me, Floyd said, "Hey Bobby, there is a fantastic steam room here in the hotel. Let's do a sweat lodge."

Floyd prayed softly in Lakota as we sat alone and the tiled room filled with clouds of steam. Soon, we both vanished in hot gray mist, while Floyd's gentle chanting continued over the hissing steam. After twenty minutes of prayers we began to talk about Floyd's sudden career in movies arriving only after his lengthy career as America's first and foremost Indian folk singer. Floyd said he believes his film career was spiritually passed to him directly from the death bed of the late American Indian film actor Will Sampson.

I agree. I served with Will Sampson on the Board of Directors of The American Indian Theater Company (A.I.T.C.) and also acted on stage with him in Tulsa in 1984 in the A.I.T.C. production of Chris Sergel's play based on John Neihardt's classic, Black Elk Speaks.

Even then, Will was very ill. A huge, gentle, man -the "Big Chief" of the Academy Award-winning film of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, and many other ground-breaking American Indian roles in films- Will was suffering from a rare, incurable lung disease which increasingly made breathing very difficult for him. In spite of his delicate health, Will took the important Red Cloud role in Black Elk Speaks to return to his Oklahoma home and, particularly, to help the fledgling American Indian Theater Company. "Sonny", as his Oklahoma Indian friends called him, knew his participation was vital to our efforts to consolidate and establish a theatrical training ground for a new generation of American Indian artists. Having never worked in live theater before, however, Will was terrified to walk out on the stage for the first time. But as the most famous Indian working in movies, Will also knew Hollywood was finally beginning to open to a "new" film characterization of American Indians and that modern American Indian actors would have to have theatrical training to seize the moment. Will also realized that he would not live to see the "new day" coming to American Indians in contemporary movies. Even so, he devoted the last years of his life helping young American Indian actors. Eventually, Will's health deteriorated to the point that he had to travel to Houston for a complete heart/lung transplant. Sadly, the procedure only bought him a few more precious days. Precious, because it enabled Will to visit with Indian people before he began his journey to the spirit world.

As Will's death became imminent, Floyd and several other Indian friends traveled to Houston to visit the actor. In their last meeting Will asked Floyd to meet a director in Hollywood to read for a part he had been offered on the McGyver television series. Floyd won the part and his film career has skyrocketed since that day.

"It was like Will was saying to me, 'I can't do this anymore Floyd. You go do it.'." As Floyd spoke about his friend his voice broke with sadness and tears welled in his eyes.

In the nine ensuing years Floyd has appeared in four feature films (Renegades, Dances With Wolves, The Doors, and Clearcut), and in eight television series (MyGyver, L.A. Law, Murder, She Wrote, Northern Exposure, Rio Shannon, and Walker, Texas Ranger). [My personal favorites are Clearcut, and, Floyd's re-occurring role as One Who Waits, the ghost on Northern Exposure.] In less than a decade since Will selected him as his successor, Floyd has become Hollywood's archetypal old, wise, American Indian.

Will Sampson knew Floyd Red Crow Westerman was perfect to take the lead as this "new day" in movies appeared for American Indians. Floyd had been involved with the American Indian Movement since its inception. Floyd was A.I.M.'s original musical voice, and since the 1960s had lived on the road, playing countless benefit concerts promoting American Indian causes and awareness. Having appeared together for years at A.I.M. functions, Will knew Floyd was already established as a major role model for young Indians, and all those years in the music business had prepared him well to move into the movie business without missing step.

Floyd was born in 1936 on the Sisseton-Wapiton Reservation on the border of North and South Dakota. He attended Wapiton Indian Boarding School for his first eight years of education. One of his classmates at Wapiton was life-long friend and future A.I.M. leader, Dennis Banks. After graduating from the Flandreau Indian School in 1955, Floyd spent several years in and out of South Dakota's Northern State Teacher's College before graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1961.

"In those days many of my Indian friends wanted to go into the military," Floyd said. In the boarding schools I had already spent most of my life under government control. When I was a young boy I didn't even know it, but my parents weren't even allowed to leave the reservation. Can you believe that? It was concentration camp mentality."

At Flandreau Indian School Floyd had taught himself to play guitar by watching other Indian friends playing country music. With a desire to see the world before using his teaching degree, Floyd headed west. After running out of money in Denver, however, he began to discover how to make a living as a country music singer.

"I didn't have a guitar back at school," Floyd reminisced, "but every night all the guys would gather to play music. I'd just sit there and watch. Just by observing, I learned it only took three chords for a song. When they were gone downtown to movies on Saturday, I'd lag behind and sneak in their room and pull out the guitar and strum the same chords I was watching them make earlier. I learned one of the early Hank Williams songs and a Carl Smith song. Well, I got the songs down so one night we were all gathering around and the girls were hanging their heads of the windows and listening to a guitar picker, and I said, 'Let me try that once!' So I got center stage with that guitar once and it occurred to me that I could handle that."

In Denver, Floyd borrowed a guitar and talked his way into a gig a two "cowboy bars". Soon, he was making a couple of hundred dollars a week at $5 or $10 a song plus tips. As his following grew, Floyd discovered a boyhood pal in the audience -Vine Deloria, Jr.

Deloria had served eight years as the Executive Director of the National Congress of North American Indians. While serving in that office it seemed that the ancient, as well as contemporary, problems of all American Indians eventually ended up on Deloria's desk. Deloria soon realized that nearly every American Indian concern had legal origins. So, after serving two terms as Executive Director of the organization, Deloria entered law school at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Floyd and Vine got to know each other again, and soon established the Denver Indian Center and the White Buffalo Council . A pivotal point concerning the re-uniting of the two, however, was the book Deloria was writing in law school. Custer Died For Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto was destined to articulate the unified position of a generation of American Indians who were quickly organizing to express the frustration of centuries of abuse at the hands of the U.S.government. Coincidentally, the American Indian Movement was founded in 1968, the same year Custer Died For Your Sins was published. "Custer" shot to the top of best seller lists and launched Vine Deloria's career as the major spokesman for a new generation of American Indians.

"A songwriter named Jimmy Curtis read Custer Died For Your Sins and wrote songs based on the book." Floyd explained. "He had already written songs about the anthropologists and the missionaries, etc, and he was looking for an Indian artist to record the songs and put an album across. I had grown tired of performing music in the bars and Vine had told me about an Indian program in the law school, so I entered law school myself. While I was in law school, however, Vine put me in touch with Jimmy Curtis. I sent him a tape of mine and soon a record label sent me a one-way ticket and a contract to come to New York. The long hours of study in law school weren't working for me and I didn't want to go back to singing in the bars, so I didn't think twice about going to New York. We wrote more songs and got the album completed in 1969. I came out in 1970 -three years before Wounded Knee. [The 1973 "incident" in which American Indian Movement activists, lead by Russell Means and Dennis Banks, held a church for several months at Wounded Knee, South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation.]

Custer Died For Your Sins awakened the world to a new, yet ancient, American Indian Movement. Floyd's other boyhood friend, Dennis Banks, was one of the founders of A.I.M. Dennis and Floyd became re-acquainted during the period when Floyd was recording Custer Died For Your Sins.

"It was natural," Floyd continued. "Here's the movement and this album was a striking parallel of songs that would go along with all the emotion that a movement needed. I think the "Custer" album provided that."

"So from there on wherever the American Indian Movement appeared I would support what was behind that. Being old friends with Dennis Banks, I was called on almost constantly for the next few years until Wounded Knee. When everybody went into Wounded Knee I was called upon to do concerts all over America raising money for that effort. Bob Hope did the U.S.O.'s and I did the A.I.M. counterpart, going around singing for the brothers inside Wounded Knee. It began, I think, when we were born. We were born into a struggle that we are still involved in today. It becomes the American Indian Movement or whatever Indian cause that becomes part of the Indian struggle in general."

Floyd quickly became recognized as the American Indian singer/songwriter. After the 1973 Wounded Knee incident during a period of civil war on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota ended with Russell Means and Dennis Banks in jail [they were eventually acquitted of all charges by the Supreme Court], Floyd performed all over the world to raise awareness and money for the struggle. While on this mission he met his counterpart in the African-American civil rights movement -Harry Belefonte. Belefonte personally financed Floyd's second album, The Land Is Your Mother.

"I wrote a song in Spanish, titled La Terra Is Tu Madre." Floyd explained. "I wrote it because I had been to Bolivia and I couldn't speak to the Indian brothers down there because I didn't know Spanish. I thought it was a good way to encourage a lot of our Indian people to learn Spanish so that we can communicate -to connect with those millions of Indian people in Central and South America. Anyway, we tried to make the songs politically palatable, and Belefonte really worked hard for me. But, in the end, it was all too strong a political statement, and slipped through the cracks."

Floyd did not know at the time that he was destined to connect directly with the Indians of the Rain Forests of Brazil, international rock star, Sting, and the heads-of- state of 17 foreign countries.

In the mid-1970s, a young Frenchman named Jean-Pierre Dutellieux traveled into the Amazon Jungle to live with the Kaiapo Indians and produce a documentary film based on their chief, Raoni, and his struggle to keep gold prospectors out of their country. Upon completion of the film, Chief Raoni asked Dutellieux to introduce him to North American Indians.

During this time A.I.M. was sponsoring "The Longest Walk" and American Indians were walking from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. to express their grievances to the government. Dutellieux brought his film to Washington to screen it for A.I.M. and meet Floyd Red Crow Westerman.

The Frenchman immediately tried to arrange for Floyd to go to Brazil to meet Chief Raoni and the Kaiapo Tribe. For ten years, however, the Brazilian government was run by the military and they would not allow visitors to Chief Raoni and the Kaiapo. Finally, in 1986, the Brazilian government became civilian and the way was cleared for Floyd to visit the Chief.

Dutellieux still needed an international celebrity to lead the effort of Chief Raoni and the Kaiapo rain forest issue. He was very close to giving up the cause when he met Sting at a concert in Rio de Janeiro and convinced him to fly into the jungle for a meeting with Chief Raoni. Dutellieux immediately invited Floyd to embark on a world- wide tour with Sting and Chief Raoni. After sacred ceremonies with the Kaiapo, Floyd, Sting, and the Chief flew to other parts of Brazil to meet with other tribal people protesting a potentially disastrous dam project on the Amazon River. Then, they traveled to 17 countries around the world meeting with such leaders as France's President Francois Mitterrand, Prince Charles in Great Britain, and the King and Queen of Spain. The mission brought awareness to the world of the seriousness of the situation in Brazil's rain forest.

When asked what he wants to do next, Floyd reveals the same focus he's always had concerning the struggle of the American Indian. He envisions America Indians making their own films, financed with European money, or, perhaps eventually, with Indian money.

"Not many people realize that Dances With Wolves, a truly American film, was produced with European money," Floyd said. "No one would touch it here in America. So they had to go to Europe for the money. Now, with 'Dances" success, European's are anxious to finance more films with American Indian themes. The Indian casinos are also beginning to make enough money to finance Native American movies. Within the next two years we will see a film about Native Americans totally created by Native Americans." Floyd also wants to create an American Indian Museum of "the Holocaust", to prevent the 500 year struggle of the American Indian from being forgotten.

"As we approach the 21st century," Floyd continued, "there is an alarming tendency to 'edit' us out. John Trudell calls it 'romantic fascism' and I think that term explains the problem very well. But, with determination, I think we will reverse this perception of Native America. The United Nations established 1992 as the 'Year of Indigenous People'. Perhaps the day will come when the Native American Nations will have a representative at the United Nations."

Yet, for now, America's great myth-making machine in Hollywood requires some acute "fine-tuning" concerning "romantic fascism" and, following in the great Will Sampson's moccasin steps, Floyd seems destined to be making movies for a long, long time. I just hope he learns to ride a horse soon.

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