AS A FULL-BLOODED CHEROKEE, WES Studi has often felt a sense of apartness in his lifetime, but never more so than once while he was serving in the infantry in Vietnam. “Two of us in the company were Indians,” he says, “and we were told we didn’t have duty that particular day. The rest of the company went out on a two-day operation. When they came back, we learned they had relocated entire villages. I don’t know that it had anything to do with the fact that many of our own people had been relocated, but it sort of struck me as funny.”
Two decades later, Studi has the title role in Geronimo: An American Legend, a movie about the Native American whom history has voted Least Likely to Accept Relocation. Studi, 46, had already drawn on his own combat training, anger and sense of enforced isolation in his riveting depiction of the vengeful Magua in Last of the Mohicans (“he’s a zealot more than evil,” claims Studi) and the angry Pawnee warrior who scalps actor Robert Pastorelli (Eldin on Murphy Brown) in Dances with Wolves.
Playing Geronimo as a fully rounded character was especially important to Studi. “He was a symbol of resistance,” he says of the Apache warrior, who fought the U.S. government for 40 years, then retired from battle and became a popular tourist attraction at local fairs. “I give him credit for finally knowing when to stop.”
Studi is all too aware of his real-life role as a symbol of Native American redemption. In his southwestern-style home in Santa Fe, he proudly displays his collection of Native American artifacts and photos. He has written two children’s books in Cherokee and even translated the Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Kentucky Cycle into that language. Says his third wife, Maura Dhu, 39, a singer and daughter of the late actor Jack Albertson: “Wes means a lot to the Indian people, and I think it weighs heavy on him.”
During the filming of Geronimo, he battled—often successfully—over unflattering stereotypes, such as scenes of Indians behaving drunkenly around the campfire. And yet, says fellow Native American actor Rodney A. Grant, who plays Geronimo’s ally Mangas: “All you see is the stoic guy onscreen. People don’t realize how humorous he is.” Or that the man who displays such filmed ferocity enjoys sculpture, tennis and jazz guitar.
Still, Studi feels the outsider. Born Wesley Studie in Nofire Hollow, Okla., he was the first of four sons of Andy Studie, a ranch hand, and his wife, Maggie, a housekeeper. As a boy he attended an Indian boarding school in Chilocco, Okla. After classes he and his friends would venture to nearby Arkansas City, Kans. “All the shopkeepers got very careful when we walked in,” he recalls.
After graduating in 1964, Studi was eventually nabbed by the Army in 1967 and sent to Vietnam. At one point his company was pinned down in the Mekong Delta—and nearly killed—by friendly fire. “If I had been Vietcong,” he says, “I would have hung it up.”
After returning home, Studi continues, “I walked around numb for a couple of years before I could get back into my life.” He enrolled at Tulsa Junior College, then joined the Trail of Broken Treaties protest march in 1972, when hundreds of Indian activists marched on Washington. He was one of the protesters who briefly occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs Building. The next year he joined the celebrated protest at Wounded Knee, S.Dak., and was among those arrested on federal charges of insurrection. Studi spent several days in jail but says he was eventually granted a waiver on condition that he leave the state.
Studi now sees his political activism as a form of post-Vietnam catharsis. “I began to purge the bad feelings within myself,” he says, adding that he joined the resisters because “I wanted to make myself a viable part of the machinery that affected my people.”
In 1974, while working as a reporter for the Tulsa Indian News, he was married for the second time (the first, he says, “was short and not a real marriage”) to Rebecca Graves, a schoolteacher and a Cherokee. They started a family (Daniel, now 17, and Leah, 13), bought a horse ranch near Tulsa, then divorced in 1982. (Daniel recently came to live with his dad, Maura and their 8-week-old son, Kholan Garret, while Leah remains with her mother.)
It was the divorce, Studi says, that turned him to acting. “I had to build another life,” he explains. In 1983 he joined the American Indian Theater Company in Tulsa. Three years later he moved to Los Angeles and made his film debut in the 1988 low-budget adventure yarn Powwow Highway. That same year he met Maura in a Los Angeles jazz club. “As far as I was concerned, it was love at first sight,” says Maura, but Wes was so shy they didn’t go out for another year.
Today, Studi is on the lookout for a different kind of role, perhaps a Native American in the 21st century. “I’d like to think,” he says, “that those of us who are American Indians will be around like everybody else.”
LYNDA WRIGHT in Santa Fe