The storied Apache warrior who held off 5,000 U.S. troops for five years on the Arizona border is often photographed astride a white horse in the new movie Wes Studi. More than a century later, and a few hundred miles east in Santa Fe, N.M., the onetime Native American activist who plays him arrives on a considerably more modern steed: a brand-new Cadillac. Or, more specifically, as Wes Studi puts it-offering to recite the lyrics of the 1972 song-” Geronimo’s Cadillac.” The song, by Michael Murphey, is an allegory about the loss of American Indian culture. So is the movie. And so is Wes Studi. ”I remember going to see Indians in movies when I was little,” he says. ”Even when they were just the bad guys, it was still verification that we were really part of the world.” Studi, who has won raves for his performance, looks confident at the wheel of the purring Cadillac as he heads north on the highway leading to Taos, proudly gesturing to the shimmering Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the distance. But he was less secure when he auditioned for Geronimo. ”When I first heard about plans for the movie, I started thinking about who I knew who could play the guy,” says Studi, 47, a full-blood Cherokee from Nofire Hollow, Okla. ”I even picked out a friend. I never thought of myself. I just pictured myself in supporting roles.” His trepidation continued even after he won the role. ”The specter of failure was suddenly much larger than it had ever been,” he says. ”Having to play a real-life historical figure, someone with descendants walking around, there was this big fear.” Nonetheless, Studi plunged into research, studying Apache on the set under the tutelage of Michael Minjarez (who appears as the Apache Dandy Jim). Though Studi’s first language is Cherokee-he didn’t learn English until he started school in Oklahoma at age 6-he points out that it is as different from Apache as English is from Russian. But learning the language was a labor of love. ”It was the first time I got to play someone I admire as a symbol of Indian spirit and resistance,” he says. Although Geronimo marks Studi’s first leading role, his shaggy black hair, flashing white teeth, and rugged, intense face have made him stand out in smaller parts. He was a natural to play the Pawnee warrior known as The Toughest in Dances With Wolves and brought a sense of implacable menace to his breakthrough role as the villainous Huron warrior Magua in The Last of the ! Mohicans. Not bad when you consider that Studi has acted for only 11 years-his prior resume takes in a tour of Vietnam, a stint in Native American politics that included an arrest for participating in the 1973 shoot-out at Wounded Knee, work as a reporter on a Cherokee newspaper, and horse ranching.
Studi drifted into acting in 1982, joining Tulsa’s American Indian Theater Company. Three years later he moved to Los Angeles. As a struggling actor, the only work he could get was playing Indians in commercials for RC cola and Diamond Brand walnuts. ”At first Hollywood treated me like I wasn’t there,” he says. ”Then they treated me like I was marginally there, and now they treat me much better.” Perhaps because of those experiences, Studi can be sensitive. Though he’s quick to laugh, his general demeanor is detached and somewhat taciturn. When the conversation lapses even briefly, he gazes off into the horizon and begins to hum. Ask him the wrong question and the trademark glower from Mohicans darkens his face. It’s not hard to imagine him pulling out the same .50- caliber rifle Geronimo used and calmly taking aim. ”I’d rather avoid confrontation,” says Studi. ”But if someone gives me trouble, I give it right back.” Studi’s steeliness may have its roots in his history as a member of the once-mighty Cherokee Nation. Though he says that tribal members have slowly regained political power since the 1960s-at least in Oklahoma-his bitterness is palpable. ”It’s all about arrested development,” says Studi. ”I feel, we all feel, a certain resentment because my people will never know what we could have been because of the invasion of Europeans.” Thanks in part to Geronimo, Studi no longer worries that his own development as an actor will be limited just because he’s a Native American. But as much as he looks forward to playing ”racially nonspecific” roles, he makes it clear that as a Native American he will always feel a certain distance from Hollywood-both geographically and spiritually. He and his third wife, Maura, moved last summer to Santa Fe, where they’re raising their 10- week-old son, Kholan Garret, in a modest adobe house. Studi’s son from a previous marriage, Daniel, 17, also lives with them; his daughter, Leah, 13, lives with her mom in Oklahoma. ”I’m a Cherokee first and an American later,” he says. ”While I may forgive, I will never forget-and I will pass that feeling on to my own kids.” *