Sonny Skyhawk: Three Decades of Fighting the Power in Hollywood

Rob Schmidt

The early days of movie “Indians” were a farce, says actor and activist Sonny Skyhawk (Sicangu Lakota). In some ways they were like a circus—complete with face-painted clowns.

Studios would put out a call at 4 or 5 am and job-seekers would line up outside the gates. An actor would go to a particular stage, says Skyhawk, “any color or creed, and out would come an Indian on the other end. Later on they started spraying them, but in those days they dipped them in a food coloring solution.”

Conditions hadn’t improved much when Skyhawk began working as an extra in 1970s Westerns. The Indians “worked hard all day long … falling off horses, getting hurt,” he says. “For 15 bucks a day and all they could eat, it wasn’t very much.”

Skyhawk’s experiences turned him into an advocate. “What I was seeing as an actor,” he says, “I wasn’t approving of as a human being and as an Indian.” Much of the filming took place on the Western sets in Old Tucson: “Doing action scenes, constantly over and over, in 110 degrees. A lot of people would fall out. They’d get sunstroke. Nobody would say to them, especially the Indians, 'Here's water.'”

Hollywood did make a few movies about modern-day Indians: The Outsider (the Ira Hayes story), The Girl Called Hatter Fox, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But the vast majority of Native-themed films and TV shows continued to be period pieces.

Renewed Native activism

In 1980-81, Skyhawk formed American Indians in Film and Television (AIFT). He met with the NAACP and media groups representing Latinos and Asians to coordinate strategies. “We all felt the same way,” he says. “Our representation on television was nil.”

Much of the initial work was behind the scenes: establishing committees within the Hollywood guilds for actors, writers, directors and producers. “We wanted to establish ourselves within all these guilds and organizations—like the Casting Society of America—so that people knew and would use Native people rather than paint somebody down and put him out there as an Indian.”

Despite the public’s perception of Indians as stoic and uncomplaining, this was far from the first Native activism in Hollywood. In 1911, delegations of Indians demanded that President Taft and the Bureau of Indian Affairs do something about celluloid distortions.

Around 1936, the Indian Actors Association formed to insist that Hollywood use real Indians. Olympian Jim Thorpe also spoke out for Native actors and wrote an indignant letter to President Roosevelt about Hollywood’s practices.

In 1983, actor Will Sampson and others created the American Indian Registry, which tried to ensure its members were tribally affiliated. It folded after a decade of financial irregularities.

Naturally, the studios and networks didn’t like to be told what to do. They wanted the freedom to use non-Indians in “redface” whenever it was easier. Native actors went without work unless their agents hustled for them.

A few industry players, especially directors with clout, were more conscientious. Once Skyhawk was filming a Little House on the Prairie when Michael Landon asked if he knew anyone who spoke Lakota. Skyhawk said his mother did. Landon flew her out and paid her to teach the language for five weeks.

In the ’90s, Dances with Wolves and Disney’s Pocahontas made a case for more Native authenticity and participation. Things seemed to be looking up. But a surprising development was about to highlight Hollywood’s resistance to change.

Diversity comes to a head

“Thirteen years ago,” notes the NAACP on its website, “the television networks unveiled their 1999-2000 fall television season. The lineup of 26 new shows did not feature a single actor of color in a starring or leading role.”

“We said, enough is enough,” says Skyhawk. “You’re gonna have to do something about it.

The coalition members asked network executives to meet with them. They got a response from the human resources departments instead, saying they thought they were doing a good job. Therefore, the networks didn’t feel any need for meetings.

Skyhawk in costume on the set of 'Little House on the Prairie'

“What happened shortly thereafter,” says Skyhawk, “is we put out another press release, where we talked about boycotting the networks. We used the word ‘boycott’ for the first time. And, boy, everyone listened all of a sudden. It was like black and white.”

The diversity coalition met with the network CEOs and negotiated memorandums of understanding (MOUs). In the following months, he says, “they actually hired senior vice president positions for each network. And that’s one of the things that we asked for.

“By holding them accountable, they now have full-blown diversity departments,” he adds. “When you go into their offices today, you see a variety of different ethnicities at work. I would venture to say it went literally from all white to black, brown, yellow and a smattering of Natives.”

To different degrees, the networks all have programs that offer access, training and mentoring to minority talent in front of and behind the camera. Yet they still measure “success” in terms of one, two or three Native hires a year. With thousands of jobs on the line, Hollywood Indians wonder why they’re not getting their fair share.

Some criticize Skyhawk for not doing enough. It’s true he’s not loud and angry. “You know, he carries a big stick,” says Alex Nogales, president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. “One of those guys who sits down, doesn’t say anything for a while, then all of a sudden he erupts.”

Skyhawk is frustrated by the lack of progress too. “When you look at television today, you see gay and lesbian people,” he says. “You see Hispanics. You see Asians. But again, very little when it comes to Native people.

“So I continue to harp on them constantly. They continue to tell me that they’re making an ongoing effort. And I just don’t see it as much.”

Helping the next generation

Skyhawk often visits reservations and talks to Native youth. Many don’t have TVs or computers and are struggling just to stay in school. He encourages them, but they have trouble imagining any career, much less a high-profile career in entertainment.

The lack of media representation is part of the problem, he says. “That’s what drives me when I go into CEOs’ offices. That’s what makes me get up in the morning. You’ve got these young people out there who don’t see themselves as part of this society. And that to me is a travesty.”

He also helps young talent in Hollywood. “He was really good to me when I was starting out,” says Jason Gavin (Blackfeet), who has written for several TV shows. “He made introductions at networking events, and he realizes it’s not just about opening doors. And years ago, it wasn’t a door he was opening. It was a brick wall, and he was creating a door.”

“I can't claim many great accomplishments, besides my children,” concludes Skyhawk, “but my greatest contribution and pride has been to represent my people in Hollywood and to be their voice in the executive boardrooms of this industry. Acting was great, the thrill was exhilarating, but to set across from a CEO of a large corporation and plead my case for my people, that was rewarding and I will keep doing it till my last breath.”