Sonny Skyhawk, Sicangu Lakota, is a veteran Hollywood actor and now author of “Ask N NDN,” a new feature on this site, in which he will attempt to answer questions great and small about Indian culture and current issues. He tells us that the decision to become an advocate and an ambassador for Indian country, as he has been for decades, was “a no brainer.” Representing his people “is what I was taught as a young man,” he says. “My mother always made sure I stayed grounded, and she insisted that whatever career I chose, that I give back to my people in some way. I am not a doctor, a scholar, or an expert on anything; I don’t hold any professional degrees, but I do possess a degree in the experience of life, and from that I have learned humility, a good deal of wisdom and a whole lot of courage, and that is what I have to offer my people.”
Skyhawk has been a member of the Screen Actors Guild for the last thirty-five years. He was instrumental in forming the first American Indian Committee at the Guild, and later, after years and countless meetings, was honored to served as the first Chairman of the President’s Task Force for American Indians. He started similar committees at the Writers’ Guild of America and the Directors’ Guild of America, all for the purpose of addressing concerns about portrayals of the American Indian in film and television. He is the Founder of American Indians in Film & Television (AIFT), which has secured Memorandums of Understanding with the four major networks, ABC, NBC FOX and CBS.
His advocacy for the American Indian stems from injustices he witnessed early on as a young boy, and then later in his career in the film industry. He recalls a custom of film production companies in Hollywood to not allow the extras to eat until the “actors” had first served themselves. He felt the custom was discriminatory, demeaning and degrading, since in most Western films the Indians on set were all classified as extras despite their often significant contributions to the film. He actually threatened to walk off set various times, early on as a lead actor, if the practice was not stopped—and to his surprise, it was. To this day, the Indian actors and extra performers, on all films utilizing Indian extras, are allowed to eat with everyone else. To some, this may not seem significant, but to Skyhawk it was a turning point and a way of establishing respect for Indians as extras, and went a long way toward parity on the sets of westerns—an important concept when the films themselves were inevitably told from the cowboy point of view.
Skyhawk hopes the groundwork he’s laid is helping up-and-coming American Indian actors like Chaske Spencer and many others to be considered for the wide variety of roles that exist. He would like to see Indian actors judged on their acting ability, not simply their Indian-ness. “Obviously, in real life, we are doctors, waste technicians, lawyers and postal workers,” he says.
Throughout his career, Skyhawk has had to walk in both worlds. He is an Indian in a non-Indian world; he is an advocate for his people within the mainstream entertainment community. In the course of his career, he has turned down countless roles due to the nature or demeaning image they projected. He says that what he found most saddening was that for every role he turned down, there was a line of other less-conscientious Indian actors willing to take that same part. “I was not the first nor the only Indian actor to turn down lucrative roles,” he says. “Many others did so before me, include Luther Standing Bear, Jay Silverheels and Will Sampson.”
Skyhawk states that his efforts have been to educate and redefine the way people see the American Indian and to get his people the attention and credit they deserve from 21st-century mainstream society. Anything else, he considers a disservice. His people have made great contributions to this great country, now called America, he says, and they need to be recognized.
Skyhawk praises the recent episode of 20/20, “Hidden America: Children of the Plains,” in which Diane Sawyer reported from the Pine Ridge Reservation. “That is only a microcosm of the reality on most reservations,” he says. “The complexities of tribal governments, along with the bureaucracies created by the U.S. government, continue to affect the very people they were meant to help.”
“I’m optimistic about the future,” Skyhawk says. “With Ask N NDN, I’ll have an unprecedented platform; by answering questions I’ll be able to somehow diffuse the negative misconceptions that exist about those I care about the most—my people.”
Sonny Skyhawk is a proud enrolled member of the Rosebud Lakota Nation, a Grandfather and Great Grandfather, lives in Pasadena, California, and remains a working actor.