Yellowstone Actor Shares Strong Feelings About Native Actors' Representation In Hollywood

Isabel May and Martin Sensmeier in 1883
(Image credit: Paramount)

It’s no secret that representation for actors from native populations has been an especially weak link throughout Hollywood’s history. There are way more examples of harmful stereotypes and white-washing of people from indigenous communities than rare instances of movies and TV finding grounded approaches to depicting native people. Yellowstone and 1883 actor Martin Sensmeier has spoken out about this prevalent issue following his role in the hit series. 

Within the past month, a massive Hulu movie highlighted native representation progressively with the Predator prequel, Prey, starring an entirely native cast and featuring a version where audiences can see the story play out in the Comanche language. Martin Sensmeier, who was part of both Yellowstone series, previously shared his strong feelings on native representation over the years. In his words: 

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. 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.

Martin Sensmeier is one of a handful of native actors from major franchises who can speak out about this issue and he did so on the Smithsonian Channel. The actor has been part of HBO’s Westworld as Wanahton, played a physical therapist named Martin in Yellowstone’s second season before playing a Comanche Native-American Warrior named Sam as part of the series’ complicated relations with native people in the recent Yellowstone spinoff 1883. Here’s what else he had to say: 

As an actor, 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.

Sensmeier is the son of a German-Tlingit father and Koyukon-Athabascan mother, making him an Alaskan Native with some European-American ancestry. As the actor who has played numerous native roles throughout his career, he pointed out that he's especially yet to see representation of Alaskan Natives. Too often, he’s witnessed the appropriation of his culture in Hollywood movies and television. 

When it comes to the Yellowstone franchise in particular, while it includes Native representation in a highly popular series, it has also been criticized by people within native communities. College professor Liza Black, who is a citizen of the Cherokee nation, for example, once wrote about the series earlier this year, calling out the “graphic violence against women — Native women” and saying it “erases the history between Natives and settlers” to High Country News

Despite criticism, Yellowstone did give native actors such as Sensmeier and other people within the community the platform to have these discussions and perhaps forward how representation of these communities can improve in Hollywood in the future. After Yellowstone’s Season 4 finale left a lot of loose ends early this year, Season 5 is set to premiere on November 13. The Yellowstone franchise is available to stream with a Paramount Plus subscription

Sarah El-Mahmoud
Staff Writer

Sarah El-Mahmoud has been with CinemaBlend since 2018 after graduating from Cal State Fullerton with a degree in Journalism. In college, she was the Managing Editor of the award-winning college paper, The Daily Titan, where she specialized in writing/editing long-form features, profiles and arts & entertainment coverage, including her first run-in with movie reporting, with a phone interview with Guillermo del Toro for Best Picture winner, The Shape of Water. Now she's into covering YA television and movies, and plenty of horror. Word webslinger. All her writing should be read in Sarah Connor’s Terminator 2 voice over.