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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


September 7, 2002 - Issue 69


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Wanted: Native American Talent

by Robert Morast Argus Leader
credits:Photo of Vanessa Short Bull courtesy Miss South Dakota website taken by Ron and Anita Frankenstein
Vanessa Short Bull, Miss South DakotaIn an effort to land more Native Americans in film and television roles, a national talent search is coming to Vermillion in November, hoping to find fresh artists from the area.

But while Native American artists from South Dakota believe Four Directions Talent Search will be helpful, they have differing views on the causes of the lack of native performers, directors, writers and comedians. Some acknowledge that access to the industry is a factor, while others say stereotypical material limits performers' opportunities.

"I think the real problem we have is that you have to play Pocahontas or the drunk on the reservation," said Vanessa Short Bull, Miss South Dakota and an aspiring performer.

Which is precisely the reason New York-based Four Directions will be at the University of South Dakota campus in Vermillion on Nov. 3, its organizers say. The stop is one of 15 across the nation where the talent search, working in conjunction with NBC, will have an open call for Native Americans with an interest in stand-up comedy or writing scripts for film and television.

"This is all an effort to better tell the American Indian story and get them into positions in the industry," said Mark Emery, director of media relations for Four Directions. "It's to get them more than the stereotypical role."

Chris Eyre is fighting the same fight, but a little differently.

The Rapid City resident and famed director of "Smoke Signals" will release his latest feature film, "Skins," on Sept. 27.

But before the tale about two brothers on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is screened nationwide, Eyre will bring his movie - via a mobile theater - to reservations across the country. It will stop at Pine Ridge, where the movie was filmed, on Sept. 12.

"I felt strongly that, before this movie opens nationwide, it should be played for the people it's portraying," Eyre said. "I think it has wonderful potential for our dreams. Hopefully, that will inspire other people's work as artists."

Talent search

When Short Bull competes in Atlantic City, N.J., during the Miss America pageant on Sept. 21, she hopes to show people that Native Americans can dance.

"I'm going there to show them that John Wayne has not killed off all the Indians," she said from her home in Rapid City.

Though she'll be dancing ballet at the pageant, her humor in the last statement indicates another talent she possesses.

It's a skill Short Bull honed during a Four Directions Talent Search a year ago when she traveled to Denver to enter the event held on Sept. 11.

She was planning to do a dramatic monologue - hopefully as an entry into acting - but changed her routine after learning of the terrible terrorist attacks.

"I remember my grandmother said that Indian people laugh to get through crying," Short Bull said. "I went up there and started talking about my life. I just told what it was like to do pageants and threw in a little reservation humor. It worked."

It worked very well. Short Bull's impromptu comedy routine took her to the contest's semifinals in Syracuse, N.Y., and then to the finals in New York City.

While she didn't win, the Four Directions Talent Search got her name into the film and television market and prompted a few auditions, including one for a part in "The Sopranos" television series.

But while the competition proved beneficial for Short Bull, she's not sure it will help all aspiring Native American artists.

"Four Directions has given a great attempt to give them a chance to act, but the material isn't right," she said. "It's hard being an Indian comedian because you can't relate a lot of your experience to the audience."

Short Bull thinks that she was chosen for auditions over other Four Directions finalists because she can fit into roles outside of the Native American archetype. She said that she was told she could play an Asian-American, Italian-American or Puerto Rican character because her swarthy look is fairly ambiguous.

"I went and auditioned to play the role of Sacajawea, and they said, 'Not enough Indian,' " Short Bull said. "Apparently I don't look like I have the typical features."

Fighting stereotypes

The battle against such stereotypes is familiar to another performer with South Dakota ties. A veteran actor and advocate for Native American artists, Sonny Skyhawk is working to get Hollywood past the "typical" Native American role.

"To an extent, most roles that have been available to Native Americans have been stereotypes," Skyhawk says from his Pasadena, Calif., home. "In essence, we are doctors and lawyers and every career that spans America. But we've been relegated to roles in Westerns."

Skyhawk, a Rosebud native, has been an actor for 31 years, appearing in such works as "Hawaii Five-O" and "Young Guns II."

When he's not acting, Skyhawk is trying to get more Native American actors into Hollywood.

"I talk to producers constantly," Skyhawk said. "I say, if you've got the role of a taxi driver or policeman or bank teller, why not cast them as a Native American in that role?"

He believes the Four Directions Talent Search will give more aspiring Native American artists a chance to find work.

"Four Directions is providing a medium for these people to be seen and heard," Skyhawk said.

And people are watching, namely NBC executives.

Emery said NBC uses the Four Directions Talent Search to form a pool of prospects.

"I think NBC 'gets it,' so to speak, in the sense that Native American talent needs to be part of the whole realm of entertainment," Skyhawk said.

Pushing forward

Eyre shares the opinion that more Native Americans should be working in the entertainment industry, but he's not ready to blame the lack of bodies on a bias.

"You can't blame the industry; it's too easy. I'm not saying discrimination doesn't exist, but if I focused on that, I wouldn't be where I'm at," Eyre said. "I know some Indian filmmakers who haven't been able to make their movies, but it has to do with the quality of their craft. It really comes down to talent.

"I don't want Indian filmmakers or people in the industry to use crutches. We have opened a door in terms of film representation in the past couple of years, and I don't want to let up."

Eyre also wants to see more Native Americans in roles of authority in the industry.

"We have talent but don't have progressive things coming out of our mouths," Eyre said. "I think the need is to have Native American directors, producers and writers. That's the foundation of your media experience."

And through his effort to bring "Skins" to reservations, Eyre hopes to inspire other people to tell stories.

But that's almost a secondary hope of what he wants the movie to do.

"Most of all, I wanted to entertain people," Eyre said. "I believed in this movie, and just like 'Smoke Signals,' I made it from my heart."

Short Bull shares a similar outlook and offers hope for Native American artists looking to break into Hollywood.

"If you really do care about what you're doing, race doesn't matter," she said.

Miss South Dakota
Vanessa Short Bull was born and lived on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. She is an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. She and her family now reside in Rapid City. Vanessa is a 23- year-old graduate of the University of South Dakota with a degree in Political Science. She is now pursuing a Master’s degree in Public Administration.


Four Directions Talent
Due to the tremendous success of last year's Four Directions Talent Search, the Oneida Nation and NBC are expanding this year's search, offering American Indian and First Nations comedians a chance to audition at one of 15 venues across the United States and Canada.

Vermillion, SD Map
Maps by Travel



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