Next Native American Stars

From the screen to the stage to the arena, these up-and-coming Native American stars are full of talent and passion.

In 2018, we profiled five young Indigenous actors and performers making names for themselves in entertainment. Time to meet the impressive new crop of North American talent. 

D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai

When we jumped on the phone with D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, the star of the hit FX series Reservation Dogs was getting ready to fly to New York to attend New York Fashion Week and view the new Tom Ford collection. The 20-year-old actor’s rising star might be tied to the hit show, but he already also has a reputation in the fashion world: Vogue recently called him “Hollywood’s stylish Indigenous star to watch.”

Shot entirely in Oklahoma, Reservation Dogs is a dramedy created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi. It revolves around a group of rebellious teenagers living in rural Oklahoma who hope to better their lives by moving to California. Woon-A-Tai, who is Oji-Cree  from Toronto, stands out in the lead role of Bear Smallhill, the de facto leader of the group, “played pectacularly by D’Pharaoh, this series’ breakout star,” The Denver Gazette enthused. Featuring all Indigenous writers and directors and a majority of Indigenous actors, the series also stars veteran Native actor Zahn McClarnon, who is best known for his role on Longmire as tribal police officer Mathias.

Before his breakout role in Reservation Dogs, the young Woon-A-Tai had just several guest-star appearances under his belt, including in such series as Tribal and Creeped Out and the movie Beans about the Oka Crisis — a coming-of-age story portrayed against the backdrop of the 1990 land dispute and 78-day standoff also known as the Mohawk Resistance at Kanesatake between a group of Mohawk protesters, Quebec police, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the Canadian army near the town of Oka, outside of Montreal. An official selection of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival, the film starred Woon-A-Tai as Hank, opposite Mohawk actress and fellow rising star Kiawentiio. 

As a tribute to his rising-star status, Woon-A-Tai was a presenter on the recent 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards.

Cowboys & Indians: Tell us a bit about Bear Smallhill. It seems like he is the unofficial leader of the Reservation Dogs.
D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai: I hear it a lot that I am the unofficial leader of the group, and I understand why it’s said. Both Bear and the character of Elora are very dynamic. But Daniel, the character who died a year before this story started, was truly our foundation and was probably responsible for the five of us getting to know each other. In Episode 7, it is revealed that Daniel committed suicide and Elora found his body. We have all lost someone, so this story line is very relatable. Back to Bear: He has a good heart but knows that if he wants to go to California he may have to do some minor illegal stuff to make this dream come true. 

C&I: Reservation Dogs is created almost entirely by Indigenous talent, including producers, writers, and actors. This seems like a real breakthrough.
Woon-a-Tai: It may be right now, but I think that several years from now you are going to see many more Indigenous writers, directors, and actors come to the front of the line. There were Indigenous crew members on the set who had no television experience but were given a chance. We all had shared experiences and traditions to draw from.

C&I: How important is it to you to study your Native language, Ojibwe?
Woon-a-Tai: My grandfather was a teacher of Indigenous language and studies at the University of Toronto, and he fought to keep those classes going and ultimately had to teach them in the hallway. Unfortunately, I didn’t pay much attention to his teachings growing up, but I am now trying to work with the elders to learn both Ojibwe and Oji-Cree. 

D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai

Photography: Jeff Vespa/courtesy Kovert Creative


Amber Midthunder

We first profiled Native American actress Amber Midthunder when she was starting to make her mark on both the big and little screen playing Native and non-Native roles to good reviews. What a difference four years can make. Midthunder has been on a nonstop roll since then. From small roles in Hell or High Water and Longmire, the actor graduated to co-starring in the Marvel/FX Legion series and The CW series Roswell, New Mexico, which is still going strong. In the past year she has starred opposite Liam Neeson in The Ice Road. 

The big news is that she landed top billing as the lead in the latest installment of the wildly popular sci-fi Predator franchise. Titled Prey, the big-budget prequel is predicted to be a blockbuster — and Midthunder, as the female warrior Naru striving to protect her people from an alien threat 300 years in the past, likely to become a household name. 

“This is it for me: My calling and passion is acting,” says Midthunder, whose father, actor David Midthunder (Longmire), is Nakoda, Dakota, and Lakota Sioux, and mother, Angelique, is Asian and European.

Photography: Studio Seven Productions


Filling out a very busy slate, Midthunder is also a youth ambassador at the Lompoc, California, wild horse conservation organization Return to Freedom.

We caught up with Midthunder a week before she was returning to New Mexico to start filming Roswell, New Mexico, again.

Cowboys & Indians: Tell us a bit about growing up in Santa Fe.
Amber Midthunder: I had the opportunity to be a kid and grow up in an environment where I could ride horses and play with sticks. Even now, wherever I am and wherever I’m working, I try to leave the concrete and connect to the land.

C&I: Congrats on your lead role in Prey, which is due out this summer. What was it like to play Naru and drive the action as a powerful Indigenous woman?
Midthunder: It was unbelievable. I feel extremely humbled. Working with director Dan Trachtenberg was amazing. He’s a great storyteller and so collaborative. Making this kind of movie with someone who is open and grounded and cares so much was incredible. Regardless of who played the role, the fact that this movie is the very first to have a female Indigenous protagonist in an action movie is huge. Carrying that responsibility was never lost to me, and I just hope to have done my people proud. 

I’m always very aware of how I represent myself since what I do may influence the girls coming after me.

C&I: The Ice Road was very male-centric. What was it like working with Liam Neeson?
Midthunder: My experiences working with Liam were really good. I was the only young Indigenous or ethnic actor in the movie, and he was very supportive. Liam was very involved with the stunt work on the set and as a responsible person he made sure I was safe during this process. He used his position to help give me a space, and I felt that my voice was heard, but this is also obviously something that you work on to create for yourself. 

C&I: You recently produced a film called The Wheel. What was that experience like?
Midthunder: The Wheel is an independent movie that a friend of mine wrote a couple of years ago, and I’m very excited about it. It’s a very fun movie about a young couple who go to a B and B and learn a lot about each other. It is the type of story that makes me love acting. I read it not for me to act in but felt jealous that an actor is really going to kill in the part. Then COVID hit, and I had a lot of time on my hands, and a group of my friends teamed up, created a bubble at a summer camp, and shot the movie.

C&I: Lessons learned along the way?
Midthunder: I move around a lot and have learned how to take care of myself and feel at home wherever I am. I’m always very aware of how I represent myself since what I do may influence the girls coming after me. 


Carsen Gray

Award-winning singer-songwriter Carsen Gray calls an archipelago just 50 miles off the coast of mainland British Columbia home. A peaceful place, virtually removed from the rest of the world, it’s where Gray translates her Haida heritage and her natural surroundings into a unique soulful sound infused with R&B energy and local spirit.

Gray’s mother recognized her daughter’s talent early on, after she recorded for the first time at the age of 9 in an amusement park amateur studio in Ontario. Her mom called Gray’s uncle, Bobby Taylor, who fronted Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers; produced The Jackson 5’s 1969 debut album, Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5; and mentored other major talent.

Gray’s self-titled album debut earned the Best New Artist award at Sirius XM’s 2017 Indigenous Music Awards. Continuing her winning streak, Gray’s 2018 collaboration on “Wanna See You” with JUNO Award-nominated DJ Shub received Sirius’ Best Radio Single. That year she also performed at JUNOfest, an annual music celebration that includes artists of all genres from across Canada.

Cowboys & Indians: Talk to us about Haida Gwaii, and how the area and being Haida have influenced your life and music.
Carsen Gray: As a young girl, I traveled back and forth between Vancouver and Haida Gwaii but moved back to the archipelago with my mom when I was 8. It is so beautiful here, and it is such a close-knit community. Haidas are known for their artwork and carvings, and I attended a school on the reserve where language and culture were part of our education.

C&I: Then came the unexpected recording at the age of 9 and starting to work with Bobby Taylor. How did that come about?
Gray: My mom and I went to Canada’s Wonderland amusement park in Ontario, where you could go into one of those little boothlike music studios and record a song, hear your voice, and they would give the record to you. After listening to the record, my mom and I realized that I could really sing, and she said, “We need to get in touch with Uncle Bobby.” We traveled to Vancouver to play the demo for him, and Uncle Bobby said, “I knew she had talent,” and he invited me to perform in some local shows with him. He was my No. 1 mentor and inspiration.

I really wanted to create music by the surroundings I am so inspired by, encouraging the listeners to put their phones down, and take in the beauty of what you have in your life.

C&I: What kind of a boost did winning Best New Artist in 2017 at Sirius XM’s Indigenous Music Awards give your career?
Gray: I received a lot of notoriety during this time, and for the next three years I put out singles several times a year. It wasn’t until the release of “Sah ’Laana” in 2020, where I showcased my community and the land I love so much, that I garnered the attention of Nettwerk Music Group and they signed me to their label. My husband, Joey Stylez, who is a music producer and rapper, gave me the push I needed to assemble my new 2022 EP. 

C&I: Speaking of the new EP, Each Moment, which came out in January, has several cuts — including “Colours Like Yours,” “Someplace,” and, of course, the title track — that seem like they might be particularly meaningful to you.
Gray: I really wanted to create music by the surroundings I am so inspired by, encouraging the listeners to put their phones down, and take in the beauty of what you have in your life. “Colours Like Yours” is a reminder that everyone is a work of art, and the inspiration for “Someplace” was heaven, a not-of-this-world place where we can find peace. 

Carsen Gray

Photography: Liz Rosa/courtesy Nettwerk Music Group


Ashley Callingbull

Ashley Callingbull is a Cree model, actress, and television personality from the Enoch Cree Nation in Alberta, Canada. A professionally trained dancer, she started her acting career by starring in a commercial for The Hudson Bay. From 2011 to 2015, she starred in Blackstone, a political television drama set in a First Nations Canadian community. Most recently, she has appeared on Tribal and played herself on the Apple+ streaming series The Morning Show.

In 2015 Callingbull was honored as the first Canadian and Indigenous woman to win the Mrs. Universe title, but Callingbull is so much more than another pretty face. She and her stepfather participated in Season 4 of The Amazing Race Canada, and she was a recipient of the Top 20 Under 30 Award in Canada for her many accomplishments, including her volunteer work with Cree elders and youth and advocacy for her culture.  

Now 32, Callingbull continues to pursue her passion of making her community and world a better place as an international motivational speaker and role model for many educational institutions and workshops.

Cowboys & Indians: What led up to your becoming the first Canadian and Indigenous woman to win the Mrs. Universe title in 2015?
Ashley Callingbull: I actually started my pageant career in 2010, and the reason why I went this route is because I do a lot of charitable work and have used this visibility to raise funds for these organizations. Also, this visibility gave me a platform to raise awareness on the issues and needs of Native Americans.

C&I: You unfortunately had anything but an idyllic childhood. How has that affected your life?
Callingbull: It became a platform to discuss violence against women. This is something that affected me. I was abused from the age of 5 to 10. Having lived through poverty and abuse, and moving forward after that, was extremely difficult. I turned to my culture, and it literally saved my life and made me appreciate everything I have. Most important, it made me the strong woman I am today. I can now speak before an audience of 20,000 people.

C&I: You and your dad competed in the fourth season of The Amazing Race Canada. What was that competition like?
Callingbull: That was a show I’d always wanted to compete on, and my dad and I always had an idea about how we would do it. We were the first Indigenous team to ever appear on the show. Our journey took us from the Northwest Territories, where it was minus 50 degrees, all the way to Vietnam, where we ate local delicacies such as cockroaches and worms. We even made it to the finale.

I turned to my culture, and it literally saved my life and made me appreciate everything I have.

C&I: You’ve been honored over the years for being a motivational speaker and role model, including speaking at Harvard and at United Nations Global Dignity Day.
Callingbull: This journey started at the hospital where my sister was being cared for, and speaking with other victims and family members. It was a way for me to look forward and start another path, breaking barriers because I am Indigenous and a woman. This was my way of healing myself. I am now so much stronger. 

Ashley Callingbull

Photography: Tina Chang/courtesy Hines and Hunt Entertainment


Keyshawn Whitehorse

Professional bull rider Keyshawn Whitehorse was born into the Navajo Nation on the Navajo reservation in McCracken Spring, Utah. Bull riding wasn’t a generational sport passed down to him as it is for most young cowboys. When he was 5 years old, Whitehorse woke up from a nap and noticed his father, Norbert, watching bull riding on TV and fell in love with the sport. Enthralled with what he saw on the screen, he told his dad that he wanted to ride bulls, and the next day father and son drove into town and outfitted Keyshawn as a cowboy. 

Now 24, Whitehorse won the 2018 Professional Bull Rider Rookie of the Year. He credits his family and heritage for helping him thrive under pressure. Whitehorse is currently pursuing a fifth consecutive PBR World Finals qualification.

We caught up with Whitehorse in McCracken Spring, Utah. 

Cowboys & Indians: How did you get into bull riding after first falling in love with the sport watching it on television?
Keyshawn Whitehorse: As a young, young boy I never had a cowboy hat or cowboy boots but woke one night, sat next to my dad, and started watching either pro rodeo or PBR on TV, and all of a sudden decided that riding bulls was what I wanted to do. The next day my dad went into the little local western store and bought me pint-sized spurs and a little calf rope.

C&I: How did you progress from that 5-year-old dreaming big to actually riding bulls?
Whitehorse: As I got older, my family had horses here in McCracken Spring, and my uncle had some black Angus cattle and I would practice roping.  My dad built me a bucking bull, and several years later I went to a rodeo school in Colorado, where I learned how to ride bulls. My first rodeo event after attending school was in Colorado, and then I started to compete in local events in New Mexico and Arizona.

Being true to my roots and culture is who I am and how I was raised, and that keeps me grounded.

C&I: In 2018 you won Rookie of the Year at the PBR World Finals. What was that experience like?
Whitehorse: Winning Rookie of the Year became a stepping-stone for me to start achieving higher goals. That year was full of ups and downs, and I was trying to get a grasp on my talents and abilities. I have always been a hard worker and consistently trained very hard in 2018.

C&I: What came next after that big win?
Whitehorse: I had also reached a high mental state during this time and achieved my lifelong goal of making it to a seeded position on the PBR circuit and was able to go on tour. My family, faith, and friends really supported me during this time in my career, and I started to enjoy the benefits of all my hard work and began to look forward to my future and hopes to win a World’s Final. Then COVID slowed things down. But perhaps 2020 was the worst and best thing that happened to me. I was able to put time into my rides and built an arena here, bought some bulls, and was practicing every week.

C&I: What message would you like to send to Native American youth?
Whitehorse: It’s easy to get lost in this lifestyle. Being true to my roots and culture is who I am and how I was raised, and that keeps me grounded. I’m a huge believer in dreams and hopefully can serve as a role model, stressing to youth that they need to pursue their dreams as well. I’m thinking about creating a bull-riding school here to share my knowledge and skills with young people on the reservation. 

Keyshawn Whitehorse

Photography: Andy Watson/courtesy Bull Stock Media


From our April 2022 issue

Photography: (Cover image) Andy Watson/courtesy Bull Stock Media

 

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