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
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
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
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
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.