By Dianne Meili
One of the most recognizable Native Americans of the 20th century was Floyd Red Crow Westerman who died at the age of 71 on Dec. 13, 2007. The musician, activist and actor was living in Los Angeles where he died of leukemia.
While known by Canadian television audiences as the traditionally dressed, sincere spokesperson for “Lakota” brand topical pain reliever, more indicative of his immense talent was his portrayal of ‘Ten Bears’ in the 1990 Kevin Costner movie “Dances With Wolves”.
Though he became a familiar face in films and on television, friends said his identity as an Aboriginal person working to bring awareness to indigenous issues mattered most to him. He saw his work as an activist in promoting peace and protecting the environment as part of his cultural inheritance.
“He was really, really politically conscious,” said his son, Richard Tall Bear Westerman. “He said the Iraq war is just another land grab, like they did with Oklahoma and the Midwest in America. Back then it was about land and gold, and now it was about oil.”
Born in Veblen, South Dakota in 1936, Westerman was raised on the Lake Traverse Reservation. Orphaned as a child, by the age of seven he was enrolled in the Wapehton Boarding School. While other students went home to their families for the summer, he stayed to clean and help out year-round. He filled the lonely hours playing his guitar.
That instrument would see him on his way to a music career, playing in coffee houses and lounges in Denver, Colorado after a stint in the marines and college. His first love was music–country music–and his deep voice was well suited for it. In fact, he put that resonance to good use on his 2006-released album, Floyd Red Crow Westerman–A Tribute to Johnny Cash.
"I had the great honour to meet and be on the same bill with Johnny Cash. It was a night to remember,” Westerman was quoted saying. The tribute album won him a Native American Music Award.
He released his first album in 1969, titled “Custer Died for Your Sins”, based on the Native injustice suject of a book by the same name, penned by the late author and activist Vine Deloria Jr., a close friend. Music from the album became the ‘theme music’ of the Red Power movement of the time.
“We lifted songs out of (the book) chapters,” Westerman is quoted as saying in the Washington Post.
American Indian Movement (AIM) activist Dennis Banks, an old school friend, influenced Westerman to play a part in the deadly standoff at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. In 1973, two FBI agents were killed following a 71-day siege; AIM organizer Leonard Peltier remains in jail over the deaths.
“We saw injustice going on and we wanted to stop it,” Westerman is quoted as saying.
Westerman’s second album “The Land is Your Mother”, released in 1982, revealed his ever-growing connection to his own Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota heritage and concern for the plight of Indigenous peoples worldwide and the earth itself.
He joined singer Harry Belafonte in his fight against nuclear power and even battled the practice of naming sports teams with Indigenous stereotypical names.
He became an activist in the American Indian Movement (AIM), traveling the world championing social justice for his people, and toured in the 1990s with Sting to raise money to preserve rain forests.
He performed with countless other musicians in his life, including Buffy Sainte-Marie, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Jackson Brown, Bonnie Raitt, Joni Mitchell, John Trudell and Don Henley in large benefit concerts for Native American self-determination, human rights and environmental protection.
Caustic lyrics critical of American history in society contributed to the fact Westerman seemed to achieve greater popularity outside of the U.S, making more than 60 foreign tours.
His musical success led to acting and in his fifties he started playing small roles in television shows like “MacGyver”. He made his movie debut in 1989’s “Renegade”, playing the father of Lou Diamond Phillip’s character.
In 1990 he played the pensive, wise Sioux chief Ten Bears in the Oscar-winning “Dances with Wolves”, a leader who realizes his people are in danger of invasion. He followed up the memorable performance playing Jim Morrison’s spiritual guide in Oliver Stone’s “The Doors”.
Likening his career to that of Will Sampson, and before him, Chief Dan George, Westerman played roles that upheld the quiet contemplation and wisdom of his ancestors.
Westerman had recurring roles in a number of television series, including “Northern Exposure”, “Dharma and Greg”, and as the code breaker “Albert Hosteen” in The X Files, a Navajo character fond of reminding his audience that “something lives only as long as the last person who remembers it.”
He sought to bring complexity and not ‘stoic Indian stereotype’ to his roles, founding the nonprofit Eyapaha Institute to further, in part, his goal of encouraging and training young Aboriginal actors to bring integrity to their roles in the film industry.
Westerman devoted his time and energy to bring honour to his people, going so far as to act as the co-chair of the Coalition Against Racism in Sports, campaigning to change the names of American teams such as the Redskins, Indians and Braves.
In the weeks preceding his death, his friend Darrell Standing Elk joined in a spiritual ceremony for Westerman.
“Floyd was such a good man. He couldn’t stand injustice, and he never condemned anyone. He just wanted to help wherever and whenever he could. It was hard to see him the way he was–in pain and all–but he’s in a far better place now, with his mother and family and all those who have gone before him,” said Standing Elk in an article from “Indian Country Today”.
Surviving Westerman are his wife Rosie, four daughters, a son, and grandchildren.