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TAHLEQUAH (AP) — Though activities began with a film screening on Tuesday, the official kickoff of the 43rd Symposium on the American Indian was Wednesday morning in the University Center on the Northeastern State campus.

About 100 people were in attendance to hear keynote speaker Wes Studi, whose lengthy film career includes memorable roles in “The Last of the Mohicans,” “Dances With Wolves,” “Heat,” “Geronimo: An American Legend,” and “Avatar.”


Studi titled his speech “After Avatar ,” he said, “because I couldn’t think of anything else.” The NSU alumnus touched on several topics during his half-hour address before entertaining questions from the audience.

“I’m especially happy to see this year’s theme [Children: Seeds of Change],” Studi said. “Our future is definitely with our children, and I don’t think that can be said enough.”

Pointing to his time in the military and within the activist movement of the 1970s, Studi said the “ruckus” resulted in American Indians’ returning to their tribes and resuscitating institutions and governments.

“For me, that was the beginning of a kind of renaissance that we Indians have been going through,” he said. “I know it started before that in terms of the Cherokee tribal government rebuilding itself, but at that point, it was a slow process. I think the reinvigoration started with students on campuses all across the United States, and is culminating in a rate of success that many tribes have enjoyed in recent years. We need to continue to build success upon success.”

In keeping with his activist instincts, Studi said he would like to see funding for the Cherokee language program at NSU restored to previous levels. NSU has removed some classes from the Cherokee language and Cherokee education curriculum in recent years, and beginning in January, the Cherokee Nation reduced its annual support for the program from $100,000 to $25,000.

“The best way of teaching language is total immersion,” Studi said. “Learning a language means something. When I want a glass of water, I know how to ask. I would love to see a maximum effort re-instituted here at NSU in the Cherokee language. After all, this is Cherokee country.”

Cherokee language became Studi’s biggest talking point. He said older Cherokees should be tolerant of different enunciations among younger speakers.

“The Cherokee language is going to change because of these kids who are actually inflecting a little differently,” he said. “The accent is different from old guys like me. If you want the language to live, that’s what it is going to do – just like English is changing. We have to accept that.”

Studi said he was made aware of the language program cuts and other issues at NSU by an email from a source he didn’t name, and said the author “kind of made me mad” by suggesting Studi was being “trotted out” by NSU.

Studi said he was invited to NSU by the Native American Student Association.

Referring to the email, Studi was dismissive of its claim of discriminatory firings.

He said he believes if the citation of students living in substandard housing were accurate, it could be solved with some communication between the administration and students, and some of it handled by students themselves.

“With growth, there are always problems,” he said. “There is going to be controversy, especially in an institution of higher learning where a lot of different people think in different ways. The email said the substandard housing was full of roaches. When I took classes here, I got my own off-campus housing, so I had my own roaches. I had roaches because I would throw pizza under the bed. You need to take care of your own space.”

Asked about American Indian roles in film, Studi said Hollywood follows trends.

“Our bread and butter is still the ‘leather and feather,’ horses and guns and fighting – the historical stuff that gets us involved in the business,” he said. “We’ve been trying to get into ethnically non-specific roles, or what we sometimes call ‘crossover.’”

Studi said American Indian content in film increased after the 1970s because Natives were “so vocally visible at the time.”

“If it works once, Hollywood will make a dozen more until the trend fizzles out,” he said. “We as a subject matter have risen and died back down, then risen again. It seems to be the nature of American society. If you want your group to be seen, you have to do something that calls attention to you. It’s more than being able to coast along and do well.”

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