‘Yellowstone’ Star Speaks Out About ‘Harmful’ Representation of Native Americans in Hollywood

by Lauren Boisvert

“Yellowstone” and “1883” star Martin Sensmeier has spoken up about Indigenous representation in Hollywood. Specifically, the harmful history America has with portraying Native Americans respectfully and accurately. The “Yellowstone” franchise has been both lauded and criticized for its portrayal of Native culture, and Sensmeier–who played a physical therapist named Martin on “Yellowstone” and a Comanche Warrior named Sam on “1883”–spoke to the Smithsonian Channel about the importance of correct representation.

“As a kid when I saw Native characters in movies, they opened up the movie with face paint on, they’re angry at the white man, you’re already villainizing us from the beginning — that stuff is harmful,” he began. “I’ve never seen a piece about Alaskan Natives on TV. If you’ve never met a native person and the representation that you do see is somebody up on TV appropriating our culture or romanticizing it, we become a fairytale.”

Sensmeier is of German-Tlingit and Koyukon-Athabascan descent, meaning he is an Alaskan Native with European-American heritage. He has taken on multiple Native roles in his career, but none that represent who he is as an Indigenous person. As he explained, he has yet to see media exploring Alaskan Native culture. Most often, his culture is appropriated and bastardized, as is much of Native culture in general.

“As an actor,” he continued, “what I would like for Native kids to see, just somebody that represents something real, that’s real power, because I want people to know who we are.”

Why Representation is Important, and Where ‘Yellowstone’ Falls Flat

While the “Yellowstone” franchise does do its due diligence and attempt to accurately portray Indigenous people, it has faced some criticism from members of Native communities. Professor Liza Black, a member of the Cherokee Nation, wrote in High Country News that “Yellowstone” features “graphic violence against women — Native women” and claimed that it “erases the history between Natives and settlers.”

All that aside, the franchise did give actors like Sensmeier and “Yellowstone” costar Mo Brings Plenty a platform. They now have the audience available to discuss representation and Hollywood’s violent history of portraying Native cultures.

Media That Gets Native Cultures Right

In terms of shows that accurately and respectfully portray Native culture, there is actually a good handful. Canadian comedy series “Mohawk Girls” was written, directed, and portrayed by an all-Native cast and crew. It focused on a group of Indigenous women and their everyday, modern struggles. Additionally, the Hulu series “Reservation Dogs” is a great look into Indigenous youth culture. This series is also created and portrayed by an all-Native cast.

Recently, Hulu also released “Prey,” a prequel to the “Predator” franchise which features an Indigenous cast as well. It also offers a version of the film in the Comanche language. This is a big step for representation because a lot of Native languages are near extinction. Indigenous communities, especially young people, are starting to reclaim and preserve their languages, bringing their cultures back to life.