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