You may not know the name Wes Studi, but you would probably recognize his face, and you should.
Studi is a Cherokee, a Vietnam veteran and an accomplished actor. He has been acting for several decades and is well-known for his roles in movies like, “Dances With Wolves,” and “The Last of the Mohicans,” and many other roles on film and TV.
He recently received an Oscar, “Lifetime Achievement Award” for his acting career.
As a 17-year-old senior in high school at an Indian boarding school in Oklahoma, Studi got permission from his parents to join the National Guard. That was in the early 60s. He signed up for the usual 6-year hitch at that time.
While he was in the National Guard, he began to hear a lot of stories from returning Vietnam veterans and decided he wanted to know if he was up to that experience. With only a year to go on his original 6-year enlistment in the National Guard, Studi volunteered to go active duty and to go to Vietnam.
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He served in Vietnam in 1967-1968. He was assigned to the 3rd Bn, 39th Infantry of the 9th Infantry Division and was stationed down in the Mekong Delta area. He arrived just in time for what was called the mini Tet. His unit was at a place called the French Fort on one of the Mekong Delta rivers, very near the coast. During the time he was there his unit would be deployed on many missions throughout that delta area.
Like so many returning Vietnam veterans, Studi’s coming home experience was made difficult, not so much by the negative attitudes that greeted us when we came home, that was bad enough, but by something more intimate, more personal, more interior. While in Vietnam we had grown used to living every moment of our lives aware of the imminent threat of death that hung around us like a pall in every moment, in every place. Because it was so present at all times, we grew accustomed to living with that tension. It shaped our consciousness, our “awakeness.” It made us constantly attentive to our surroundings, constantly keyed up to act at a moment’s notice.
It was that fundamental survival mechanism that became our unconscious habit, a part of what we brought home with us.
Studi remembers that coming home, it took a long time to let go of that constant awareness of potential imminent threat. We were always tense, always keyed up, never letting our guard down. It was this that often made those around us think that we were a little crazy.
Studi’s description of this made perfect sense to me. It resonated with my own experiences of coming home. We brought that aspect of the war home with us. You couldn’t just shake that off. It was a part of our being.
Some of us are still carrying that heightened sense of awareness with us every day these five decades later.
In those early years after coming home from Vietnam, before Studi decided to try out an acting career, he did a lot for his tribal community. He taught the Cherokee language and the Cherokee syllabary and was involved with the Cherokee language newspaper, among other things. He is active in Native American rights efforts as well.
The Veterans Site wishes to add its congratulations to Wes Studi for his recent recognition as an Oscar winner for his lifetime of superb acting and starring roles in such great and memorable movies. We honor him for his service to the country in Vietnam as well.
Thank you, Wes Studi for giving us such honest portrayals of Native American life over your decades long career.
Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site Blog.