source: Saginaw Grant, via IMDB.com

A Conversation with Saginaw Grant, Chief Big Bear from 'The Lone Ranger'

Simon Moya-Smith
6/13/13

When Saginaw Grant was in the first grade, he played the role of a reindeer in his school’s Christmas play.

Decades later, Grant, the actor, traditional southern straight dancer and lecturer, will star as “Chief Big Bear” alongside Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer in this summer’s probable blockbuster The Lone Ranger.

But Grant, a citizen of the Sac and Fox, Iowa and Otoe-Missouria nations, said he never endeavored to be an actor. One day in the ‘80s, Grant was speaking at a seminar near San Francisco. A man approached him and asked if he’d like to play a role in a car commercial. Saginaw took the role and he’s been acting ever since.

Indian Country Today spoke with Grant recently from Los Angeles about his role in The Lone Ranger, his cast-mate Johnny Depp, alcoholism in Indian country, and the imperative to motivate one another.

What was the climate like for the Native Americans on the set of The Lone Ranger?

Everything was done with a lot of respect. They wanted the people to do everything correctly. They hired a few men who said they were Comanche to come in and do the wardrobe. And Gore [Verbinski, the director], he really has a lot of patience. I, myself, had difficulty in some of my scenes, presenting what he wanted me to do. But he was patient. Instead of tearing me down and saying "don’t you understand what I want?" – he didn’t do that. He made me feel like I was doing exactly what he wanted me to do. I never heard him holler on the set. He was very congenial, very thankful. The makeup people, they really did a good job. I felt good. This was the best crew I ever worked with, and hopefully I’ll run into another crew like this.

You’ve met and worked with Johnny Depp on the set of The Lone Ranger. What do you think of the controversy surrounding his role as “Tonto”?

Our people, the Native people, have always been the people to help each other. [We] always want to encourage someone rather than to tear them down. And these people who do this. … I don’t know. I feel sorry for them. I pity them, really. They’re making it hard out here for the Native actors who are working. [Johnny] has a lot of respect for all people – not just Native people, but all people. I’ve had a chance to talk with him. I would suggest the people who will read this that they go see The Lone Ranger. It’s not what we’ve seen in the past. It’s going to be completely different. That’s what’s going to make it different. It’s not the way we were portrayed in the past episodes of the old Lone Ranger [television series]. You have to see it to understand it, and to really see what we’ve done. I encourage, especially our Native people, to come and watch it.

What’s been the best role of your life?

This role – The Lone Ranger. I really like the part I played, even though I do get killed; I probably have died in a lot of movies I’ve been in. I probably hold the record there. Floyd [Red Crow] Westerman and I kind of argued about this. I said, “I died more times than you do.” That’s just the way it is, I guess. I’ve been very fortunate because people seem to like my look, because it’s an "Indian" look. I’m not a star or anything, but I’ve been able to stick here and have work. And I’ve been becoming pretty well known – especially since people found out that I’m in The Lone Ranger. They’ve really paid attention to me now. I feel good about it.

Why is it important that budding Native actors pursue their dreams?

We have fine actors, fine actresses who have done some good work, but I don’t think that we have enough yet. I think that we belong in this field of work and we can get there. It may take a little bit longer, but there’s a need to it, this Hollywood movie making and everything. We found a place here. There [are] people like Graham Greene, Adam Beach. There are a lot of our people who’ve made and live good lives and who help people. That’s one thing about our Native people: We’re always willing to help someone. I constantly say that we could’ve easily wiped out Columbus when he first came to this country. We had the numbers, but we were willing to help. We were willing to give someone a chance. But I don’t look back and relive something that happened in the past. There’s nothing we can do to change it. But I can only make it better for our people.

Where do you see Native Americans in the future of Hollywood?

Personally, I encourage a lot of young people not to give up, to seek their career, to stay there [in the industry] regardless of what kind of comments they get when they go for an audition. They better have a tough hide to accept some the things that are said. I mean not said out of disrespect, but [regarding] their own personal ability. I’ve never been criticized for being a Native. Nobody’s ever said anything disrespectful to me, and I don’t think they do that to other Native actors. We don’t have a lot of Native actors in this field, though. It makes me feel good when I see and meet a lot Native actors. … Don’t give up, just don’t give up. It takes a lot of time to get recognized.

How do you spend your time when you’re not acting?

I go to a lot of events. I do a lot of public speaking. And I talk to my new generation about indigenous culture. You know, we’re in a place where we’re losing our identity by not holding true to our traditions and our culture. And when we lose our culture there will be no more Native peoples. That’s my main purpose now is to teach our young people our traditions and our culture. We must never lose it. It’s kind of strange when I talk to young people. They don’t really know what their beginning is. They need to hear the stories that our grandpas and grandmas had. There are principles in the stories.

Every morning, I start off my day by talking to the Creator. And these are the things I tell my young people: Keep true to who you are. You are a Native person. You’re different than all these other cultures. It doesn’t hurt to compliment somebody. This is what I teach the young people. I go to recovery houses where men are suffering and wanting to get away from alcohol. I know that life. I’ve been through it. And when I talk to them they know I’ve had that experience that they are in or are going through. I’m somewhat successful in my endeavor. I was at one time an alcoholic myself, but I’m no longer an alcoholic. And it makes me feel very proud because I’m making up for what disgrace I did bring to my people when I was using alcohol. I try to get this across to our people who are still suffering from it. The Creator gave us the ability to know right from wrong. We just have to make the right decision. Today, if we live by these principles, we can be happy.

 

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yvonnelbussell's picture
yvonnelbussell
Submitted by yvonnelbussell on
H I young aka hey young means hellow so good see u .face up closely .and not in thee bushes you clouds joking .haha i loved all your movies alwaysmystar . no matter where you our.. best frineds for ever , for live ,, i wish i was a movie star like you al my live. take care god bless al your famliy too. yvonnel bussell @yahoo.com smileing still.

Josh Tousey's picture
Josh Tousey
Submitted by Josh Tousey on
It is great to see someone teaching the younger generations: "things I tell my young people: Keep true to who you are. You are a Native person. You’re different than all these other cultures. It doesn’t hurt to compliment somebody. This is what I teach the young people."

Andrea Montoya's picture
Andrea Montoya
Submitted by Andrea Montoya on
Oh this is a breath of fresh air, thank you Saginaw as always for such words of wisdom and it speaks loud and through your words it summons the words, "to all our relations". When we say these words, it means we are to live in harmony with all people and respect our animals as well, for all that inhabit our mother earth, we are in relation to. Thank you as well Simon for a great interview!

Julianna Redhawk Villalobos's picture
Julianna Redhaw...
Submitted by Julianna Redhaw... on
We see Mr. Grant at pow wows all the time and we refer to him as "Grandfather", not because he is related, we are all related. We refer to him as such because we have such respect for him as an Elder and Leader. We have heard him pray the invocation at Pow wow and simply love this man we don't really know personally. If you look in his eyes, how can you not have respect and love for him?

Marilyn Maracle's picture
Marilyn Maracle
Submitted by Marilyn Maracle on
I look forward to seeing this movie. I want to thank Saginaw Grant for all he has done and all he will do in the future ~ Walk in peace and have a great day ~ AHO ~ <3

Eddie Reynolds's picture
Eddie Reynolds
Submitted by Eddie Reynolds on
What priceless treasures we have in Native Americans. They are the most loving people on earth. They take so little and give back so much. After my daddy died I learned that I was part native American. I am so proud and respectful of that heritage. Native Americans have a wealth of knowledge. A relative of mine sent me a book titled "Healing Secrets of the Native Americans." Since there were no drug stores in those times Native Americans found hundred of natural cures from plants and herbs they had. The forerunner of aspirin was chewing a piece of willow bark. We as Americans will forever be indebted to Native Americans for all of their knowledge.

dennis g livengood sr's picture
dennis g liveng...
Submitted by dennis g liveng... on
my grand father was a indian he marred indian woman i beleve it was blackfoot or chechee

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
Thank you for your kindness,my Grandfather never scolded me,never raised his voice ,never said an unkind word, He just had that look in his eye that you do Sir, I remember sometimes when he would play cards with some of his friends . he would tell his friends to respect their Elders my cousins and I would stop playing around them and would go off to talk among our selves wondering which among them was older our grandfather was in his 70.After He cross over I ask my Grandmother who was older and she laugh with a tear in her eye she told me that it was his way to tell his friends to respect our innocence of worldly ways. times have change a lot since my childhood .Mr. Jay Silver Heels was my first t.v. hero .he gave dignity and grace to a demeaning role at that time he was Mr. Indian Native American not Injun he didn't jump around a campfire. give my sincere apology to Mr.Depp since you will have a chance to cross his path again, out of respect for you and my grandfather, But he needs to do more and learn more,Native american are getting a lot of flack in palm spring Calif because they want their water right , children are getting teased in school if they look native american even the ones that are not,pleas continue to educate those that cross your path

Claire's picture
Claire
Submitted by Claire on
Saginaw Grant brings pride to our Native People and shows what can be done in your life if you are willing to try.

Ardys Winters's picture
Ardys Winters
Submitted by Ardys Winters on
Wise words, these could not hurt everyone to read and hear, seriously. Peace and happiness always.

Steven M,Ross's picture
Steven M,Ross
Submitted by Steven M,Ross on
Yes Saginaw you speak true and powerful words of wisdom that will guide the younger generation to face their fears as they struggle in their attempt to reach higher goals in life.We in Indian country need more elders like you that have been through the rough times and managed to succeed no matter what obstacles are in your way. Thank you and keep up the good work.

Steven M,Ross's picture
Steven M,Ross
Submitted by Steven M,Ross on
Yes Saginaw you speak true and powerful words of wisdom that will guide the younger generation to face their fears as they struggle in their attempt to reach higher goals in life.We in Indian country need more elders like you that have been through the rough times and managed to succeed no matter what obstacles are in your way. Thank you and keep up the good work.

Ruben Chato Hinojosa / Apache Actor's picture
Ruben Chato Hin...
Submitted by Ruben Chato Hin... on
Thank you Saginaw! You remind us all of what it is to have respect, not just for our elders, but also for each other.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
You are a gift! You keep giving and that is a beautiful thing. I can not wait to see this movie, Lone Ranger. My favorite is the Indian.....I love the story. I am a motorcycle girl although I had to sell it to get my house, I will get another one one day, I will ride with the wind in my hair and say Hey Saginaw!!!!! Thank you for sharing so much Mr. Grant you are such a beautiful person.

Nannette's picture
Nannette
Submitted by Nannette on
So truthful and honest and All people should teach these principals to their young, Wouldn't it be nice to go anywhere and not see underwear,a hand holding up pants enough to take a step and pray the underwear is clean, so you don't smell butt. No enough young know or are taught not to copy others and to be their own person,not weak in fear of not being accepted,so they clone...so sad

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
My Blood is of the Comnmches People. I love getting news From Indian counter being that I'M stuck in Brooklyn N.Y .Your news is very good for my Spirit, Thank you for being there.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
You are a very wise man and I admire you greatly. I think that Native people should not be restricted to just "Native" roles in TV or movies. They should be the leading man or woman, a character actor, good guy, adversary just as any other actor/actress does. Although I am literally as white as white can be, I am proud to be able to say I am 1/16th Cherokee. I kinda do wish the Native had pushed Columbus out instead of helping him. Imagine living in a land with all people respecting the Earth and other people as the Native peoples do.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
Such a great role model. We are all good, it is just so easy now to belittle people to make oneself feel better. We all make mistakes, to make them better is the key and Mr. Grant I pray you continue teaching the young ones where they came from and who they are because most people just try to fit in and do not understand why. My love to you and your family and this is going to be an excellent movie, just another week now....WOOOOHOOOOO!

lesley holden's picture
lesley holden
Submitted by lesley holden on
Sagniaw, I have followed you for YEARS. I listien to your inspirational stories at Pow Wow.s watch you include people in the round dancing - you walk your talk and I send love and light to you for many more years of you sharing yourself with the world. CANT WAIT to see Lone Ranger.

lesley holden's picture
lesley holden
Submitted by lesley holden on
Sagniaw, I have followed you for YEARS. I listien to your inspirational stories at Pow Wow.s watch you include people in the round dancing - you walk your talk and I send love and light to you for many more years of you sharing yourself with the world. CANT WAIT to see Lone Ranger.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
Mr Grant I know the creator applauds and smiles at your efforts and your works. This world is a much better place having your footprints on its soil
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