They have found success and are paying it forward: C&I spotlights five young Native American entertainers who are using their platforms in acting, comedy, and music to inspire fans and raise awareness of their cultures.
Saulteaux-Cree and Métis
Born in Alberta, Canada, Jessica Matten has Métis and Saulteaux-Cree heritage on her mother’s side and Chinese and British lineage from her father. Although her maiden name is Wild Horse, Jessica’s mother was brought up to not be proud of her culture — so she wanted her children to be raised with the traditions of the Cree and Métis. Matten’s mom was also a professional dancer who opened one of the first Native modeling agencies in Canada, helping to guide her daughter into the arts.
Matten began training in dance as a young girl in the mid-1990s — she even traveled to South Korea and performed for 20,000 people. It was all part of introducing tradition into her upbringing.
“I was immersed in our Native ways, which included storytelling, drumming, and such arts and crafts as making dream catchers,” Matten says. “We moved around a lot, as my mom was a professional dancer as well as a cultural arts program director.”
She grew accustomed to the spotlight early on, so acting was a natural progression. In 2014, after appearing in a handful of smaller roles, Matten joined the cast of the Canadian series Blackstone, which explored the real dynamics of family, power, and politics on and off a First Nations reserve.
Her next big project was the role of Sokanon opposite Jason Momoa in the Netflix-Discovery Canada series Frontier. It follows the chaotic and violent struggle for control and wealth in the 18th-century North American fur trade.
“The cast members come from around the world, including Britain, Scotland, Ireland, and the Indigenous Peoples across Canada,” Matten says. “Both [Frontier and Blackstone] are relevant today as we are now fighting for our water rights, where in the 18th century we were fighting for fur rights.
“Sokanon becomes more prominent in this upcoming season of Frontier, when the producers will tie in current issues as well, and I’m interested in seeing what kind of conversation the story will elicit.”
The young actress has spent much of her life advocating for awareness and opportunity in First Nations communities across Canada. Working with the nonprofit Lemon Cree, Matten and her family have helped people achieve their fitness, wellness, and health goals.
Although Matten is honored to be playing indigenous roles in Canadian productions, she is doing more work in the United States and breaking into the film and television worlds here. She’s already shot the upcoming film The Empty Man, in a role that wasn’t specifically written for a Native person.
“Directors, writers, and producers are becoming more open to casting across racial and ethnic lines, and I want to play every color in the crayon box.”
Read about Jessica Matten’s latest nonprofit work at n8vgirls.com. Frontier is available for streaming on Netflix.
Known to fans by his first name only, Gareth is a flutist and singer who, at just 15, wrote and recorded his 2013 debut album, The Journey. He was named Rising Star at the Native American Music Awards in 2014. In late 2015, he released his second CD, Sky Before a Storm, and eventually became the youngest musician to reach No. 2 in Billboard’s New Age albums chart.
“He’s a rare talent, and he’s still just a kid,” Music City News critic Rick Moore wrote of the 19-year-old prodigy.
Growing up in Tennessee, Gareth was influenced by his Native roots as he developed his songwriting chops. “My background has helped me connect with the music I play, especially the Native flute,” he says.
Gareth remembers going into a music store in Santa Fe while on a vacation with his parents when he was a young boy and picking up an inexpensive flute. “I started to play immediately; and after a week, we drove to the majestic Mesa Verde [National Park] Cliff Dwellings in Colorado. Something drew me near to an edge, and I started to play glancing down at the Native dwellings.”
Travels inspired Gareth, but he was equally guided by the sounds inside his home.
“I have always done my own thing musically and am self-taught on the Native American flute,” he says. “When I was living at home as a young teen, I would play my flute along with everyone from Sting to AC/DC, as I wanted to step it up and do something different with a traditional instrument.”
Not content with the adulation and respect he’s earned as a musician, Gareth uses his talents to help others. He performs for anti-bullying programs in schools across the country. With a few years under his belt as a motivational performer, he offers the message that if you’re facing a bully, you have the choice that “this time you can rise above it.”
Gareth also volunteers at hospices, playing for terminally ill patients. “Regen’s Song,” from Sky Before a Storm, was penned for a 12-year-old whose life was cut short by brain cancer. Proceeds from the single went to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Last spring, Gareth spent several weeks in Santa Fe working on Voices of the Guardians, a collaborative recording with producer Lance Bendiksen, narrated by celebrated actor Wes Studi. The piece highlights the wisdom from Native American elders around the country who are revered teachers and living historians.
With each new project, Gareth furthers his life’s mission: “My goal is to raise awareness of Native culture and the arts, as both my parents are musicians and have instilled a lifelong love of music in me.”
Find out more about Gareth’s benefit single at garethmusic.com.
Oglala Lakota, Diné, and Omaha
Tatanka, whose first name means “male buffalo” in Lakota, is the son of the late Native actor and activist Russell Means, who was known for playing Chingachgook in the 1992 film version of The Last of the Mohicans. The younger Means, now 32, was raised on the Navajo reservation in Chinle, Arizona, and credits the connection to his roots for his success.
Means landed his first major acting role when he was cast as the young Crazy Horse in the 2005 Steven Spielberg-produced miniseries Into the West. “My dad was filming a small independent film [at the time of casting] at my local boxing gym in Chinle where I grew up boxing,” Means says. “They needed some stunt work and asked me to double for the main character. It was cool for me, but no one else could tell I was in that movie, so I decided to seriously give acting a try.”
He sent an audition tape to the casting director for Into the West, read for the role, and got it.
Means continued to work in smaller films until he was cast as Wolf in the film version of Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes in 2012. The bestselling young adult author was on the set during filming. “It was really an honor to work with her,” Means says. “I portrayed a modern-day character who happened to be Native, and this attracted me to the project and character.”
Another plus to the project was that Means got to work with his father — it was the only time they were ever on screen together. Russell Means passed away later that year. “I was hesitant at first, but he was really fantastic. It was so special, and I’ll always have that memory.”
Means has recently appeared on AMC’s gritty western series The Son, opposite Pierce Brosnan. His character, Charges the Enemy, is a tribe patriarch looking for more power.
Means also does stand-up comedy, touring nationally with the group 49 Laughs. It started when he was asked to speak at a sobriety event on a reservation. Comedians were performing there, “and I saw how stand-up could keep their attention, delivering laughter along with a message.
“When the troupe invited me to their next event, I showed up with a 20-minute set all scripted out. It seemed to work, and a comedy performer was born!”
As an actor, Means has remained committed to playing Native roles. “This is who I am, where I’m from, how I was raised, a pillar of my strength.”
His upcoming projects include a film produced by the Chickasaw Nation, called The Chickasaw Rancher, and a movie adaptation of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s bestselling book, Once Upon a River.
“I’m very encouraged by the increase of roles for Native people, and I look forward to the day actors are cast exclusively from their own tribes, bringing truth and realness to the characters.”
Find out more about Means’ various projects at tatankameans.com.
Millions of young hearts melted when a then-twentysomething Justin Rain made his film debut as a Quileute warrior in the supernatural film The Twilight Saga: Eclipse in 2010. That provided the kind of momentum any actor needs to secure a variety of TV and film roles.
Over the last seven years since that breakout part, Rain has worked with some of the most respected and talented older Native American actors in the industry. In the Canadian political drama Blackstone, he was cast opposite Canadian Inuit Eric Schweig.
Of Blackstone, a political drama taking place in a First Nations community in Canada, Rain is proud to say that the majority of the cast was Cree. “This was my first television show as a series regular, and it was great to star in a contemporary Native show,” he says. “Eric played my dad, and I asked him questions all day every day.”
Rain had a similarly educational experience acting with Graham Greene in the Syfy series Defiance. They played father and son.
“I remember watching [Greene] in Thunderheart with Val Kilmer, thinking, I would love to be an actor.”
He also acted on stage opposite the late Russell Means in 2010 in Palestine, New Mexico at the Mark Taper Forum theater in Los Angeles.
Like his Native actor contemporaries, Rain feels a calling to help younger people pursue their dreams. It’s taken him to remote Canadian reservations with a motivational program called Artist Inside. Not only has the program helped others to foster creativity, it has helped Rain deal with issues that he says held him back during his own childhood.
“I grew up an angry young man, as my father was never around, and I overdosed three times,” he says. “I no longer drink or use drugs and have been able to express myself through something creative.”
Actress Amber Midthunder is the daughter of actor David Midthunder (Hostiles, Longmire) and is currently a series regular on the FX television series Legion, based on the Marvel comics. Created by the executive producer of Fargo, the series is currently shooting its second season. Midthunder plays Kerry Loudermilk, a Native superhero who lives inside the body of a geeky scientist. “The show is an experience to watch,” she says.
The actress has lived in Santa Fe for a good portion of her life. The city is “where I had the opportunity to be a kid, riding horses and kicking sticks,” she says.
“My parents never pushed me into acting, but as I was constantly around it, I started young loving the craft and discovered I was built to act.”
She broke into the craft gradually, starting with a small role in the 2008 Santa Fe-filmed movie Sunshine Cleaning. “I paid my best friend in edamame to be my publicist.” Midthunder says with a laugh.
For the next few years, she got her feet wet in episodic television, including appearing as Lilly Stillwater in two seasons of Longmire. In 2015, Midthunder appeared in the critically acclaimed and Oscar-nominated film Hell or High Water.
“I was obviously in really good company [on Hell or High Water], and it was such a privilege to be working with actors like Jeff Bridges and Ben Foster,” Midthunder says. “I was both terrified and excited to be working with such [good actors].”
Midthunder devotes her off-screen time to outreach and activism. She’s a youth ambassador at Return to Freedom’s wild horse sanctuary, as well as part of the “Priceless” self-image movement started by Grammy-winning band For King & Country.
“My parents are proud that I’m using my platform to, hopefully, make a difference,” she says.
From the February/March 2018 issue. Available now on newsstands or click here to order the magazine.