What’s So Hard About Casting Indian Actors in Indian Roles?

“I wasn’t going to sit here and tell a story about very real issues,” namely sexual violence against women in Indian Country, “and cast people to portray characters in that world suffering those burdens and not have some connection,” Mr. Sheridan, who is not Native American, told me. He hired, among others, Mr. Sensmeier (of Tlingit and Koyukon-Athabascan heritage), Graham Greene (Oneida) and Julia Jones (Choctaw and Chickasaw).

Mr. Sheridan admitted, “There was someone far and away that was the best, but I didn’t hire them because they were not Native American.” He even told his casting directors that when it came to auditioning actors, “Don’t even read them unless you can vet the authentic nature of their ancestry.”

“Redface,” the manufacturing of ersatz images of Native American identity, has long been a problem in Hollywood, and there’s a well-documented history of hiring non-Indians for Indian roles. But Mr. Sheridan’s solution is thorny, too. When vetting is a challenge even for tribes, which can become embroiled in controversies over identity, how can casting directors do it? Physical appearance can be deceiving, and requiring tribal membership may exclude those who are not enrolled.


Lou Diamond Phillips, right, playing a Cheyenne businessman, with Robert Taylor in “Longmire.”

Ursula Coyote/A+E Networks

“Fifteen or 20 years ago, they would have found someone who was ethnic enough, and that would have flown,” said Lou Diamond Phillips, who plays a Cheyenne business owner in the A&E drama “Longmire.”

Frequently cast as Native American, but of Filipino, Scottish-Irish and some Cherokee ancestry, Mr. Phillips has played a range of roles, from a Mexican-American teenager in “Stand and Deliver” to Thai royalty on Broadway in “The King and I.” He added, “I never claimed to be a Native actor, but I do have Native blood.”

Other stars have taken pains to note their heritage when it mattered to the role. Johnny Depp, who starred in “The Lone Ranger” as Tonto, said that his great-grandmother was “Cherokee, or maybe Creek.”

“Being Indian is more of a political and cultural identity than racial,” explained Carla Pratt, a professor at Penn State University and a justice of the Supreme Court of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. “We do have a…

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