It’s lunchtime, and Sonny Skyhawk is at a table in a restaurant near his Pasadena home, holding court in a corner table in the back. The topic of discussion is an unfortunately familiar one for the soft-spoken but quietly determined and passionate man – the depiction of Native Americans in media, especially Hollywood.
Skyhawk has been frequenting this restaurant for nearly 40 years, since he was a young actor studying at the nearby Pasadena Playhouse and working as an extra on TV shows and movies (Bonanza, A Man Called Horse). His memories of those days are mixed. “I loved acting – and still do,” he says. “But I became very adept at dying, because that’s what I did in the majority of the shows and films. It was a farce.”
Off-screen, it was often worse. “When it came to lunch, they would say, ‘okay, all you Indians get over here and stay over here and you’ll eat after everybody else eats,’” he recalls. “So consequently cowboys and the Calvary would eat first and step all over the food so to speak, and then the Indians would be behind them and eat whatever was left over.
“I never thought that was right because we worked just as hard, if not harder by running around and getting shot at,” he continues. “And when I questioned it, they said, ‘well that’s the way it’s always been.’ And I said, ‘well it’s wrong, and hopefully one of these days I’ll be able to say something about it and change it.’”
In 1981, Skyhawk founded American Indians in Film & Television to “educate, promote, and defend, the image and portrayal of the American Indian” in Hollywood. Unfortunately he is not able to rattle off examples of progress. Instead, he reveals that his morning on this day just before Americans elected the first African-American president to a second term and several states voted to allow gay marriage was spent dispensing statements to media outlets about the misrepresentation of Indians in a new music video from Gwen Stefani’s band, No Doubt.
“They offered an apology and pulled the video,” he says. “That was refreshing. I’m hoping once again that people learn from it.”
There couldn’t be a better time. November is Native American Heritage Month, and Comcast is recognizing the occasion with a collection of award-winning movies, biographies and TV specials that celebrate the very first Americans. The collection will be available to all XFINITY TV customers on XFINITY On Demand and will include select programming also available on XfinityTV.com, XFINITY TV on Xbox 360 and the XFINITY TV Player app, throughout November.
“Xfinity TV is proud to celebrate the rich culture and history of the Native American community, and we encourage customers to take part in the celebration by watching all month long,” said Ruben Mendiola, Vice President and General Manager of Multicultural Video Services, Comcast Cable. “We look forward to bringing customers even more Native American movies, specials and educational programming designed to entertain, inform and inspire in the months to come.”
Skyhawk, who advised XFNITY TV on its collection, is accustomed to educating others. “To me, being Native American means being in a constant state of explanation,” he says. “I do a lot of explaining and answering questions. Where are you from? What tribe do you belong to? Are you a real Indian?”
As Skyhawk says, “In all the years that I have been involved in the entertainment business, it’s been something very close to being in a constant state of explanation.” Take this basic exchange: Tell me about your background. “I am an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe,” he says. What does that mean? “To be a federally recognized tribe, you have to have existed as a government for X amount of years,” he says. “Some tribes haven’t achieved federal recognition. Some were ousted, so to speak, by the U.S. government many years ago and don’t qualify.” What is your tribe? “I am a member of the federally recognized tribe called The Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Central South Dakota.” Where is that? “We’re on the border almost of Nebraska and South Dakota.” Is that Lakota territory? “Yes. I am what is known as a Lakota, a member of the Lakota Nation,” he says. “We are one of the last tribes to have any kind of conflicts with the United States government. So we basically are kicking and screaming through the whole thing.”
Born in Scotts Bluff, Nebraska, Skyhawk is the only child of Phillip and Josephine Roubideux, migrant workers who picked beets, potatoes and beans. “They had a little circuit where they would go from South Dakota into Nebraska and then to Colorado and back, depending on the season,” he says. His French surname stems from a trapper who worked as an interpreter for the government, but his family’s Lakota name is Red Blanket. His grandmothers and great-grandmothers were midwives on the reservation. In 7th grade, Skyhawk followed a girl he liked into the school play, Jack and the Beanstalk, and the acting bug stuck.
“Long story short,” he says, “we went on to the 8th grade and high school and did a lot of plays in high school, and we became boyfriend and girlfriend type thing and high school. We separated right after high school. She went into the Marine Corps and I went on to try and pursue my acting and do small theater. I met her again about 15 years ago in a Sears store. We were shopping. She had gotten out of the service and had seven children. And it was so cool to see her again, after all those years.”
In the meantime, Skyhawk finished high school in San Diego, then moved to El Monte, in South East Los Angeles. He honed his acting at the Pasadena Playhouse. “I had experienced a lot of bigotry and a lot of racism in my young life,” he says. “But I found that in the theater you were judged by what role you played and the performance rather than the color of your skin.” TV and movies proved a different experience. “Indians were treated less than,” he says, adding that “a few [movies] showed the Indian side of it a little better, but you can probably count them on one hand. Most were denigrating to the Native people. There had to be a winner and a loser, a good guy and a bad guy, and the Indian was chosen.
“As a young man, I was very militant – I guess that’s the right word,” he says. “I experienced racism on the sets and films that I was associated with or Westerns that I was performing in, and I knew it wasn’t right. So I said to myself, one of these days when I get some kind of notoriety behind me, I’m going to speak out about this and try to change things.”
After changing the practice of segregated on-set meals by threatening to walk off the set, Skyhawk added full-time advocate to his resume. That was decades ago. Since then, he has worked steadfastly to open doors to Native people in all aspects of the entertainment industry, both in front of and behind the camera. More recently he has consulted and pushed in network boardrooms to get recognition of Native American Heritage Month. “I saw the networks paid homage to African-Americans and Hispanics, Asians and the Lesbian-Gay community,” he says. “But where was the acknowledgement of Native people? Again, I needed to change this. We are the first Americans, but we are the last, unfortunately, to be recognized.”
Skyhawk points to Kevin Costern’s Academy Award winning movie Dances with Wolves, available with XFINITY On Demand in the Native American Heritage collection, as a breakthrough for Native people. “It’s probably the first film in the history of filmmaking that showed Native Americans being kind to each other,” he says. “The filmmakers consulted us and paid a lot of attention to the details of our culture and customs.” He served as a consultant for Columbia pictures on Geronimo: An American Legend (“we did everything possible to acknowledge and accurately show the Apache Nation,” he says), and he cites the more recent film, Smoke Signals, also part of the XFINITY TV collection, as an example of progress behind the camera. It’s director Chris Eyre is of Cheyenne-Arapaho descent, and it was based on the novel by acclaimed Native American novelist Sherman Alexie.
Skyhawk has worked with NBC since 2000 as part of its Joint Diversity Council. Since Comcast purchased NBCUniversal in 2011, Skyhawk has worked closely with the parent corporation. “Comcast is using the same type of innovative understanding as NBC,” he says. “They get it. They understand that we’re consumers just like everybody else who watches television. We are cable subscribers. And most importantly they’re committed to entertainment that’s reflective of everybody in American, and that includes the Native people.”
Skyhawk calls attention to the American Indian Film Institute’s 37th annual festival in San Francisco as an example of a small but vibrant film community among Native people. “Good films are being made,” he says. “The challenge is getting them seen by a wider audience.”
But his goal is more representation of Native people in the mainstream. “The issue is still a lack of being present on the screen,” he says. “We have an extraordinarily high dropout rate in high schools on reservations. When I speak with young people, I’m constantly told ‘I don’t see myself as being part of mainstream America. Why should I? I don’t see myself period on TV or in the movies. So why should I strive to finish school if I’m not part of the system?’ And that is very depressing.
“It is very – it becomes very personal to me because I do have the power to be able to say something and especially here, in this medium.”