New Internationalist

Interview with Adam Beach

Issue 444

The Canadian First Nations actor, star of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and hit US TV dramas Big Love and Law and Order, talks to SIAN GRIFFITHS about what he sees as the mistrust between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians, and how he rediscovered the joy of acting in his latest film, Cowboys and Aliens.

What’s your earliest memory?

Chasing rabbits in the trails in Vogar, Manitoba.

What political or moral issue do you feel most strongly about?

Suicide awareness [among First Nations People]. If you look at the statistics of suicide attempts across Canada, it’s [higher] than the national average.

Do you see yourself as a role model for young aboriginal kids?

Yes. I have turned my life around, from getting into gangs to becoming a better man. I came to understand that carrying out my culture and traditions is a very positive way to learn to respect myself.

I wanted to kill myself. If it weren’t for cultural teachings, I wouldn’t be here. There was a young man who was a little older than me. He showed me a different example of being Indian. All I knew was the rough neighbourhoods of Winnipeg. He showed me the traditional side of traditions.

What’s your biggest fear?

Drowning. My father drowned when I was a kid. I’m still afraid of the water.

What is your greatest ambition?

To open the doors of the entertainment world to First Nations people.

How well do you think non-aboriginal Canadians understand aboriginal Canadians?

There’s a lack of education on both sides when it comes to learning how to work together. [Indian] Residential schools did 200 years of damage trying to eradicate the traditional culture and language of First Nations people. It created such damage to the psyche of First Nations people that there is a lack of trust between Indians and non-Indians. There is a long journey needed for healing from that type of abuse. People have an image of Canada that is beautiful – which it is – but they tend to turn a blind eye to the treatment of First Nations people when it comes to the history of trying to destroy a culture.

Does the Canadian government meet the needs of aboriginal Canadians?

No, because if you look at the history of land claims, it’s ridiculous. It’s going to take hundreds of years to establish a good standing in giving First Nations their [land]rights. It shouldn’t even be an issue. Canada knows and should rightfully give that land back. The Indian Act over the last 20 years has been bent, folded and reintroduced. Indians don’t even realize that they are losing their sovereignty.

In the last 200 years, Canadians have conditioned themselves to think that it’s okay for Indians to live in ‘third world’ conditions. The government owes billions of dollars to these communities. It is so easy to manipulate a reservation which is starving to sell out – for land claims or hydro or mining – because they will take anything they need in that moment. They don’t realize they are selling themselves short.

It’s a battle that is slowly being won by our people. We are becoming educated doctors, lawyers and politicians.

Where do you feel most at home?

I’m most at home wherever I am. I have children in Ottawa and Los Angeles. I’m always on the move.

What did you enjoy most about your latest Hollywood project, Cowboys and Aliens?

I was so happy to be part of a film where aliens were involved! I play a cowboy. It was a little weird because I have to be afraid of the Apache [Indians]! I didn’t feel too bad about it because there are a lot of Indian cowboys – like in rodeo.

I had been getting bored of acting but I learned to enjoy it again. Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig, Sam Rockwell and [director] Jon Favreau introduced me to the idea that my character was important. They treated me like an important part of the movie. I needed to be inspired by those actors; they inspired me to work collaboratively.

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