Busting stereotypes, role by role
BY JENNIFER LEVIN
Santa Fe New Mexican
ON THE COVER
Eugene Brave Rock used to fall off horses for a living in movies like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (2007) and The Revenant (2015). As a performer with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, he chased buffalo on horseback for a year at Disneyland Paris, and told stories about the Blackfoot people. But being a stuntman is hard on the body, so he jumped at the chance to take on more acting roles. His break came in 2017, when he played The Chief in Wonder Woman, and became part of the DC Comics extended universe. This summer, he played Navajo activist and agitator Frank Nakai in AMC's Dark Winds, the serial adaptation of Tony Hillerman's popular novels about detectives Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee and Bernadette Manuelito. Brave Rock, 44, read several Hillerman novels as a teenager, hungry for any and all pop-culture depictions of Native peoples. Brave Rock (Káínai Nation, Blackfoot Confederacy) sat down with Legacy to discuss his career, Native representation in film and television, and his goals outside of acting. Tell me about yourself. Where did you grow up? I was raised near the backbone of the world — Siksikasitapii stuuhgo — the Rocky Mountains of Canada, Blackfoot country. I am what we call a gipiidaypooka, raised by an elder, my grandmother. Gipiidaypooka doesn't mean spoiled, exactly, but chosen. I am very grateful to have been raised by my grandmother. When did you get the acting bug? I was inspired by a stunt man name Steve Revis in the movie Geronimo . To see a strong, powerful, Indigenous man made me proud of who I am. There's usually such a stereotype about Native men in movies — we're always the enemy, the bad guy. My goal is to honor our elders by inspiring our youth, as Steve did for me. What other careers did you consider before getting into film? I've done construction and roofing, and now I'm considering producing and directing, but I want my legacy to be preserving, retaining and educating in Indigenous languages. I'm involved with the Blackfoot language revitalization project as well as the Oki Language Project. My goal is to have a database of the 600-plus Indigenous languages, many of which are considered endangered. Utilizing our elders is key. In my time with elders, I've come to know that everything has a purpose and a place that is not to be misused, abused or taken for granted. That includes the words that you speak. In today's society, everything is disposable and words have lost their purpose. What are your special powers as The Chief in Wonder Woman? What does it mean to you to play an Indigenous superhero? His superpower is being Indigenous! You can't get any more powerful than that. The Chief is an Indigenous superhero speaking Blackfoot for the first time in a major motion picture. I was able to provide backstory for him. The character is left a bit mysterious as to his powers, but he is a demigod. I have heard from so many fans that everyone would love to see The Chief's storyline unfold. What was it like to be in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in Disneyland? What did you learn about Europeans’ understanding of North American Indigenous culture? It was a great steppingstone for my life and career. To be a part of that long history of the show is a blessing, and the learning experience of traveling abroad was tremendous. Most of the people I met would never have met an Indigenous person from North America, and I had to go all the way to Europe to chase buffalo. I learned a lot about myself as a human and a spiritual being. The majority [of Europeans that I met] are clueless to the realities of Indigenous life as I know it. As are Americans, I'm sure. How do you feel about the current state of Indigenous representation in film and TV? Canada has a better track record of telling First Nations stories in feature film and TV than the United States does, but it seems like Native representation is finally becoming a reality in Hollywood. Every day, it gets better. I'm so thankful to be part of a time where we are taking control of the narrative. Storytelling is our oldest tradition, so being an actor is carrying on that tradition in a contemporary way. With an Indigenous producer, director and Indigenous writers in the room for Dark Winds, how could it not be better? Tell me about your Dark Winds character, Frank Nakai. Frank Nakai wasn't a specific character in Hillerman's books, but he's based on characters from the novels. He's a scarred war hero. He fought for a country that doesn't fight for him. He is a warrior for the people, the best bad guy you'll meet. There are a lot of prominent Indigenous figures made to look like bad guys or agitators, like Russell Means and Leonard Peltier, who started the American Indian Movement in the 1970s. I brought that moral compass they have to Frank. How did you move from stuntman to actor? The transition was rather natural and organic. I was an extra when I was 17 on Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: The TV Show. When I did Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, I moved from extra to “special skills” because I could ride a horse. Everything has been a steppingstone, but Wonder Woman elevated me the most. It's a lot tougher being an actor than being a stuntman — to show emotion and put it all out there for the world to see is hard. It's easier to get shot and fall off your horse. What projects do you have coming up? I cannot confirm or deny anything, but have you ever heard of the fastest man in the world? They called him Deerfoot. Lewis Bennett was his name. And that's all I can say.