Sonny Skyhawk Bringing His War Bonnet to Oscars, Fighting for His People
The millions of television viewers who will watch the 88th Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awards ceremony tonight might catch a glimpse of a man wearing a long, feathered Indian headdress strolling along the Oscars‘ famous red carpet where Hollywood glitz-and-glitter is lavishly on display.
It won’t be a faux Indian like all those played by white actors in old Hollywood westerns – or even in new ones.
After performing in nearly 60 Hollywood films over almost four decades, Skyhawk was invited last summer to become a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
“I’m looking forward to going to the Academy Awards, voting [on Oscar winners], doing everything that a member of the Academy does, and I’m contemplating wearing my eagle feather war bonnet to the awards’ red carpet. It’ll be a first, I’m sure,” Skyhawk told ICTMN at the time.
Wearing his Lakota war bonnet (and perhaps his regalia) will be a proud and exuberant assertion of Skyhawk’s Native American identity. The eagle feathers are sacred to the Lakota people, earned for courageous and noble actions. Skyhawk earned two eagle feathers, which he received in ceremony, for facilitating the return and gifting of 100 buffalo from Catalina Island to the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Nation’s reservation.
It’s paradoxical, but somehow appropriate, that the beautiful, old, traditional eagle feather war bonnet will be the means by which Skyhawk reminds today’s filmmakers (and the world) that American Indians are still here and should be represented in contemporary Hollywood movies as real people living real lives, and not as stereotypical savages or dummies. Those are the cutout cultural caricatures the film industry, since its beginning, has most often used to portray indigenous peoples. And it still does, more than 500 years after Columbus’s murderous “discovery” of the “New World” that had sustained its First Peoples for more than 10,000 years.
“I opine that the intentional effort to deprive American or international audiences from viewing the image and storylines of our people is a denial of a basic and human right – the right to be acknowledged as an existing and contributing member of our society,” Skyhawk recently told ICTMN in an exclusive interview.
Tear Out the Rotten Teeth
When Skyhawk’s membership in the Academy was announced last summer, he believed he told ICTMN the invitation was, “a good thing because I’m hoping by joining and being a member that I open another door for my people.”
Skyhawk has been a lifelong trailblazer for Indians in the entertainment industry. In 1981, he formed American Indians in Film and Television, “an advocacy group that endeavors to defend and enhance the interests of American Indians in the mediums of film, television and telecommunications” according to its Facebook page.
“What my organization has tried to do is provide jobs and open doors for Native people in this industry,” Skyhawk said. “So when a Johnny Depp or anyone else who’s not Native takes an acting job as an Indian and gets painted like an Indian, we believe he’s depriving a real Indian of a job.
“The second thing is when it comes to the director or the producers saying, ‘We’re going to cut this guy’s head off in the sweat lodge,’ the non-Indian will say, ‘Yeah, I don’t see anything wrong with that, go for it!’ While an Indian would say, ‘Wait a minute, guys, that’s not really cool or according to our beliefs and practices.’”
Skyhawk initially thought he was the only Native American member of the academy but he learned recently that he is one of three – but he doesn’t know who the others are, because the Academy has a policy of not revealing who its members are. “They keep their membership very close to the vest, so to speak,” Skyhawk said.
So, does it make any difference that there are three Academy members, not just one?
“No, it doesn’t, not in 84 years,” Skyhawk said. “That’s how old this organization is. And you’re going to tell me that in 84 years, Will Sampson wasn’t deserving and Chief Dan George wasn’t deserving or Jay Silverheels?
I mean, there have been a lot of people that have come down the pike and I’m sure had deserving roles.”
“If the roles aren’t there, then you don’t get a chance to graduate to consideration by the Academy, Skyhawk said. “That’s the conundrum.”
“We as Native people need to write, produce and direct our own fare, just as Spike Lee has done for the African-American community. Until then, we are relegated to be ‘set dressing’ or inanimate objects. We do have a choice, we just haven't acted on it."
Spike Lee and a host of other African-, Asian- and Hispanic-Americans in the entertainment business will be missing from this year’s Oscars by choice. Many minority groups called for a boycott of the event in protest of the Academy’s lack of diversity after it came out with its list of nominees in January.
Although Skyhawk sympathizes with the boycotters’ quest for diversity, he won’t stand in protest with them. “I don’t support the boycott because I think the boycott is aimed at the Academy itself and the Academy is basically the last group [in this chain], if you will. The Academy is there to award the artist or the producers or the film, so the decay is not, in my eyes, at the Academy,” he said. “The decay is in the system, the endemic systematic operation of the entertainment business, period, which is films, studios, talent agencies, all of the people that contribute to the making of a movie. That’s where the root-canal surgery is needed.”
Feeding the Spirits
When people ask Sonny Skyhawk why he is so passionate about improving the representation of Indians in the media, he credits his mother and grandparents and the way they raised him. “I remember my mother always impressing upon me that I should give something back to our people and I’ve always tried to do just that. And being an activist for our people in this entertainment business has been trying, at best, but nevertheless that is a duty that I wouldn’t shirk from for anything, because I think it’s important,” he said.
One of the many ways his mother modeled the act of “giving back” was by providing for the ancestors, Skyhawk said. “She called it feeding the spirits,” he said. Whenever she cooked, she would put a spoon of each dish on a paper plate and set it outside on a windowsill.
“So anytime that you do that, you’re helping to feed those spirits that are still with us,” Skyhawk said. ”And that’s the Indian traditional way of thinking – that there is no death; there is a transition into the spirit world. People don’t die, they transition. Your physical body may give way but your spirit continues to live and exist.”
But what Skyhawk thinks about most are the children he visits at reservation schools across the country. It’s all about identity, he said. Young people are confused because they don’t see their images represented on television or films in a way that makes them proud, Skyhawk said. “In essence, they become non-people. They’re not recognizable.
“When I hear a young person say, ‘I don’t see myself getting a college education because I don’t belong. I’m not one of them,’ that’s the ultimate reason why I do this. There’s no reason that our children, our future, should ever be considered less than,” he said. “They are just as good as anybody else, just as worthy as anybody else. So whenever I fight for our people – and fight for them in this thing called the entertainment business – it’s because I want people to know that we’re still here, viable, contributing people and worthy.”
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