This post has been updated on 9/20/2017. Please scroll down for new developments.
Actor Adam Beach (Flags of our Fathers, Windtalkers) called for a boycott on his Instagram in July of the upcoming made-for-television film Yellowstone for its casting of actor Kelsey Asbille (Wind River) to play the role of Monica, described by Deadline as “the Native American wife of [main character John] Dutton’s son Cory whom she lives with on the reservation with their son.” Asbille’s full name is Kelsey Asbille Chow, and she is mixed race Asian American according to her Wikipedia page, although she says she has Cherokee ancestry in an interview with the New York Times.
Asbille previously played Natalie — another Native character — in Wind River, which follow’s the story of the aftermath of Natalie’s rape and murder on the reservation. For that film, Asbille defended her casting saying that the character was “in [her] blood.”
On Instagram, Beach — a prominent Native actor and outspoken advocate for the Native community — took issue with Asbille’s casting in Yellowstone, saying:
Failure in Diversity. I’m asking my Native Actors to stay away from this project. “Yellowstone” is telling the world that there are no Native actresses capable of leading a TV show. Unless your great-great-great grandparents are Cherokee.
Beach also writes in the comments of his post:
I speak on behalf of all my woman Natives who work so hard to get noticed and they wake up to this.
The Instagram post came shortly after Deadline reported Asbille’s casting, but the post has received recent attention after the Asian American community reacted with outcry to the initial casting of actor Ed Skrein (The Transporter: Refueled) — who is not Asian American — to play Major Ben Daimio — who is Japanese American — in the upcoming Hellboy film reboot. Skrein later made headlines for deciding to withdraw from the Hellboy project, citing concerns of whitewashing.
Now, the Native blogging community has re-raised Beach’s concerns, and has pointed that it complicates the “whitewashing” narrative when it comes to Hollywood’s erasure of communities of color. In the case of Yellowstone, some within the Native community argue that an actor of color — in this case a mixed race Asian American woman (with some Native ancestry but unconfirmed cultural and political connection to the Native community) — is being used to erase Native identity, much to the dismay of the Native community which finds itself far too often already stereotyped or rendered altogether invisible in mainstream Hollywood film.
Commenters on Instagram largely support Beach’s call for a boycott and wonder if Asbille has demonstrated any interest in her Native heritage prior to being cast in Wind River or Yellowstone. Writes one commenter:
Many Natives disagree with the federal government determining “who is an Indian” and requiring proof via CIB. I would agree that an actor who is also connected culturally to their tribe and providing support, motivation and inspiration would be a better choice than someone only claiming ancestry without connection.
In an article from last year, the New York Times addressed the issue of the Native heritage of actors cast to the play the role of Native characters. It noted that Lou Diamond Phillips is mixed race Asian American with some Cherokee ancestry, but is often cast to play Native characters along with characters of many other racial and ethnic backgrounds. “I never claimed to be a Native actor,” said Phillips to the Times, “but I do have Native blood.”
The New York Times also pointed out that many other Native actors are typecast, and unable to play roles that aren’t stereotypes of Native Americans. “If you are Native, you rarely get cast in crossover parts,” said Gil Birmingham, a Comanche actor described by the Times as “seemingly Hollywod’s go-to actor for Native American male roles.”
The issue raises the question of how the casting process in Hollywood, in general, plays into stereotypes of people of colour, rather than serving as part of a search for racial or cultural authenticity in the resulting art. Some actors who are deemed “too ethnic” in appearance find themselves typecast; others who are deemed by look or background to be “ethnically ambiguous” find themselves cast in many different roles, including some that only dubiously reflect their racial or ethnic backgrounds.
One must wonder what effect this casting process — which seems to treat non-white identity as a sort of generic “Brown-ness” that can be satisfied with mere “close enough” casting — has on popular constructions of race and racial identity? Why is it that when it comes to white leading actors, the casting process touts itself as rewarding the best actor to play the part? But, when it comes to non-white characters, why does a significant part of the casting process seems to hinge solely upon whether or not the chosen actor fits preconceived (and often inauthentic) notions of what that particular non-white character should look like? And above all, does such a system end up limiting the possibilities for actors of color; and are we not, therefore, fated to end up fighting one another for the scraps at the bottom of White Hollywood’s barrel?
Update (9/20/2017): In the wake of the controversy described above, Native American actor, producer and activist Sonny Skyhawk, who also founded the advocacy group American Indians in Film & Television (AIIFT), declared that AIIFT would formally join Beach’s boycott. Skyhawk also reached out to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians tribal nation — the nation to which Asbille claimed descent from — to inquire whether their tribal nation records could show evidence of Kelsey Asbille’s tribal membership or lineal descendence.
While different tribal nations use different guidelines to establish membership, Skyhawk recently wrote for Indian Country Today that the Cherokee Nation uses evidence of lineal descent — rather than measures of blood quantum — to establish tribal membership. In other words, those who claim membership in the Cherokee nation must demonstrate themselves to be descendants of ancestral (or current) tribal members, and tribal rolls are used to record and identify lineal relationships for this purpose.
Yesterday, Pechanga reported that the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians nation had responded to the inquiry with a formal letter denying Asbille’s tribal membership and descendency, saying they could find no evidence that she was a descendant of any Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. According to Pechanga, the letter said in part:
“The enrollment and descendant records of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians have been searched for the aforementioned person. Kelsey Asbille (Chow) is not now nor has she ever been an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. No documentation was found in our records to support any claim that she descends from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.”
Skyhawk noted that “the only legally recognized entity that can prove and declare one’s Native identity is the tribal nation that anyone claims.”
In the wake of this report, the Native community has redoubled its efforts to challenge Asbille’s casting, noting that there are many Native actors available to play Asbille’s role in Yellowstone.