Myrton Running Wolf received praise for his latest short film Soldier. Inspired by true accounts, the story follows two young Lakota sisters — escapees of 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre — as they fight to survive against the U.S. military. Rarely seen in Hollywood, the movie provides a unique perspective of historical American Indian events through a dynamic Native American sibling relationship.
Myrton watched how most Hollywood “diversity and inclusion” initiatives became stale corporate marketing and public relations campaigns. As a result, for more than a decade, he’s worked to incorporate American Indians behind-the-scenes and in front of the camera by filming on tribal lands. Soldier, for example, was filmed entirely on the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation and in the Toiyabe National Forest.
Over the years, Myrton shared with me the vital need for American Indian participation in mass media as well as our participation in discussions about “Inclusion in Hollywood” — you can read about that in his many essays provided on his personal webpage and Real Last Indians webpage.
Myrton “Sacinaw” Wesley Running Wolf is a Blackfeet Indian from Browning, Montana, with Wasco family in Warm Springs, Oregon. He was named after his grandmother Myrtle and his grandfather Myles “Sacinaw” Running Wolf. Myrton currently works as an Assistant Professor of Race and Media for The Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, next to the Paiute, Shoshone, and Washoe tribes.
His journey has been filled with rigorous perseverance, and he credits his success to a wealth of experience, hardship, and passion.
Growing up on the Blackfeet reservation, Myrton’s home life was surrounded by alcohol, drugs, poverty, and violence. He escaped by immersing himself in athletics and film and television programs. He found strength in the film Rocky and Sylvester Stallone’s portrayal of the down-and-out boxer wanting to prove to himself, and to the world, that he wasn’t a bum. Myrton shared this with me about his first acting gig.
“When I finished playing college football in Michigan, I took a few years off of school. When I decided to go back, I returned to Reno. Not all of my credits transferred over and I needed to retake a speech class, but they were full by the time I enrolled. However, Acting 101 fulfilled the requirement. I was late to register, so I made an in-person request to the teacher. As it turned out, the college wanted to stage the play “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” but they were having doubts due to the difficulty of casting the role of huge bull-muscled ‘Chief Bromden.’ The instructor, my now lifelong friend and mentor Carolyn Wray, nearly jumped in my arms with excitement and relief when I showed up. After studying acting that semester, I launched into the only type of preparation I could think of — inspired by my work ethic as a scholarship athlete. Pretending to be a medical student, I visited and studied mentally ill patients at the local psychiatric hospital, listened to radical Civil Rights Era speeches by John Trudell and Russell Means, and I used Constantin Stanislavski’s ‘emotional recall’ techniques to place myself in the mind of a paranoid schizophrenic … yeah, that was not a great idea for a newbie actor … but audiences loved the performance. We received standing ovations every night of the run. I kept going after that, inspired more by a love of storytelling than anything else.”
Soon after, he received a scholarship to attend New York City’s American Musical and Dramatic Academy. While attending the academy, an instructor asked him if he’d like to perform and study with him at the prestigious Juilliard School. After acting in several theater productions and witnessing the lack of cultural diversity, Myrton decided to get a Masters of Fine Arts degree in writing and directing film and television from the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts — a professional program noted for its intensive media production training. Thereafter, he went on to serve as a Creative Producer for The CW and NBC network television affiliates as well as work in Production Management for Walt Disney Studio’s ABC Television Group on primetime series LOST, Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, Brothers & Sisters, and Criminal Minds. He also continued to act in notable film productions but, after witnessing first-hand the persistent blatant racism in the entertainment Industry, Myrton decided to earn a second master’s degree from NYU-Tisch School of the Arts’ performance studies program with a direct focus on the lack of diversity in mainstream media production.
As a working actor, writer, and director, he shared.
“Hollywood’s studio system touts its anti-intellectualism and is in complete denial of its racist and sexist practices. So, I decided to become a practice-based researcher of this societal problem and a university professor dedicated to teaching corrective methodologies. I earned my Ph.D. in Theater and Performance Studies from Stanford University and now I teach classes in Race, Gender, and Media as well as Human-Centered Design: Cross-Cultural Collaboration … I don’t think I ever really felt like ‘I’m really doing it (as an actor)’ … however, there was one day on the set of Terrence Malick’s ‘The New World’ when I was standing in the middle of legendary actors Colin Ferrell and Wes Studi with Terry over one shoulder and Academy Award-winning cinematographer Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki over the other. They were all looking at me to lead the scene … so I stepped backed, laughed at myself and the situation, slapped my face, and told myself, ‘Get your shit together! You’re not a fanboy!!! You’re not here to take a fucking selfie! Do your job, idiot.’ Then I stepped back into the scene, waited for ‘Action!’, and dragged John Smith (Colin Ferrell) through the swamp. We all went for beers afterward.”
Even with a list of acting credits like Steven Spielberg’s TNT series Into the West and collaborations with well-known directors like Terrence Malik — Myrton only has a handful of productions that he feels most proud of for reasons that are personal to him.
“There are many projects that I feel truly blessed to have been a part of. I think the ones that I am the proudest of are the ones that not a lot of people know about and not a lot of people supported us in creating. Just to name a few — ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ (stage), ‘Jarin — A fable by Jim, Knute, and Red’ (short film), ‘Alcatraz — Art Behind Bars’ (immersive and interactive live theater event), ‘Chitra — Warrior Princess’ (stage), and ‘Black Warrior of Pyramid Lake’ (screenplay).”
As a multi-award winning actor, director, producer, scholar, and writer, Myrton works to develop greater participation and visibility for American Indians in mainstream media. He is currently filming the opening sequence of his celebrated screenplay “Black Warrior of Pyramid Lake” which won best screenplay at the Moondance Film Festival as well as a Stanford Arts Institute’s Spark! Grant. The script was also a finalist at Tribeca’s All-Access program, the Beverly Hills Film Festival and Canada International Film Festival screenplay competitions. Constantly developing new work, he mentioned at our photoshoot he’s also writing a magical realism fantasy novel about the Carlisle Indian School. He says, “It’s inspired by the lives of my mom and her sisters (my aunties) who were all a huge part of raising me.” The novel follows an adaption he wrote while attending NYU-Tisch of Anton Chekhov’s classic play “The Three Sisters” set at the Carlisle Indian School in years prior to World War I. Both stories are dark comedies intended to provide a creative outlet for and voice to American Indians. He shared, “Most theater organizations seem to be intimidated by our take on this American Indian subject material.”
Some critics view Myrton’s actions as defiant while others see it as boldly attempting to improve the visibility of our nation’s most marginalized ethnic group. However, one can notice that Myrton’s main objective is to increase American Indian participation in film, television, and theater and to grow cultural understanding by harnessing the tremendous influence and power of mass media. Changing people’s perspectives on this country’s historical treatment of American Indians is a huge and powerful responsibility. It can be done if filmmakers work together.
American Indians’ reflections and voices are continually marginalized and silenced in mainstream storytelling. It’s time for better participation, and that is exactly how Myrton has positioned his career — fully dedicated to changing the ways people view American Indians in all media.
Myrton Running Wolf, Assistant Professor of Race and Media for The Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno,