Floyd 'Red Crow' Westerman Balanced Acting with Activism

Floyd Westerman is dead at the age of 71. The program pays tribute to the Native American actor and activist. Westerman was best known to audiences for his performance in the film Dancing with Wolves.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We want to note the passing of another American icon - actor, singer and activist Floyd Red Crow Westerman. He died late last week in Los Angeles from complications of leukemia. Westerman was born in a Sioux Indian reservation in South Dakota. He appeared in dozens of films and television shows, most notably as the Sioux elder who befriended Kevin Costner's character in "Dances with Wolves."

Westerman had a full life beyond movies and television. He was a well-known folk singer. Here he is, singing "Custer Died for Your Sins."

(Soundbite of song, "Custer Died for Your Sins")

Mr. FLOYD RED CROW WESTERMAN (Singer; Actor; Activist): (Singing) All the lies that were spoken.

MARTIN: He was also an activist who worked to raise awareness of issues of concerns in Native Americans and the environment.

And I'm joined now by Kevin Gover. He's director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian. To tell us more, Kevin, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. KEVIN GOVER (Director, Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian): You're welcome, Michel.

MARTIN: What made Floyd Red Crow Westerman special?

Mr. GOVER: Well, most Americans think of Floyd from his acting and having seen him on television and in the movies. But in Native America, Floyd was a singer and an activist, and certainly, for people my age had very much to do with our understanding of the place of Indians in American society and how that needed to change. He was, I daresay, the poet laureate of Indian activism in the early '70s.

MARTIN: Sometimes when people are called upon to depict their culture in mainstream vehicles like, you know, like a movie like "Dances with Wolves" -sort of a big-budget, big Hollywood production, it can be tricky because people who actually are living the culture can be very, you know, critical and concerned about the way the culture is depicted. How did you think Floyd Red Crow Westerman handle that responsibility? And how did folks in Indian countries feel he handled his responsibility there?

Mr. GOVER: Oh, I think that Native Americans certainly thought Floyd handled it well. It really is tough as you point out because the roles that are generally available to Indian actors, of course, are going to be almost necessarily stereotypical because they're written by non-Indians and people who don't really know the history, don't know the culture. And so - but Floyd managed to walk the line awfully well.

MARTIN: What do you think his memorable accomplishments - when I mentioned, you know, the song that we've played a little of bit of, "Custer Died for Your Sins," was, for instance, a big hit back in the day but do you think people still remember it?

Mr. GOVER: Oh, I know they do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GOVER: I know they do. You know even today's young Indian people can sing some of Floyd's songs. And certainly their elders, people like me, remember him well and speak of him often and talk about how you know that single album that he released in 1969 or something, really gave us the opportunity to have a voice about what was going on in Indian country. And so Floyd - I mean that that to me is Floyd's major accomplishment.

MARTIN: And what do you think his legacy will be? How do you think he'll be remembered?

Mr. GOVER: Oh, he'll be fondly remembered. You know, not only was Floyd a talented artist and musician and actor, but he was a good guy and he was somebody that so many of us knew we could just walk out and chat hey, how are you doing, and Floyd always remembered you and always had a good word.

MARTIN: Kevin Gover is the director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian. He joined us by phone from Washington.

Kevin Gover, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. GOVER: Oh, you're welcome. Thank you.

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