Floyd Red Crow Westerman, who used his talents as an actor, singer and songwriter to advance the cause of Native American rights and become one of the more famous Indian faces, died on Thursday in Los Angeles. He was 71.
The cause was leukemia, his agent, Arthur Toretzky said.
As an actor, Mr. Westerman was perhaps best known for playing Ten Bears, the wise old chief, in Kevin Costner’s “Dances with Wolves” (1990). Another prominent movie part was as a shaman in “The Doors” (1991), directed by Oliver Stone.
His television work included roles as Uncle Ray, a sagacious old Native American, on “Walker, Texas Ranger”; the ghost of a long-dead chief named One Who Waits on “Northern Exposure”; and Albert Hosteen, a Navajo code breaker on “The X Files.”
On “Dharma & Greg,” he was George Little Fox, an elderly Indian who came to live with Dharma and Greg.
In choosing roles, Mr. Westerman sought to avoid stereotypical Indian characters in favor of more nuanced presentations. He founded the nonprofit Eyapaha Institute to further this goal through training young Indian actors, among other things.
Mr. Westerman also addressed Indian concerns in his singing and songwriting. The title of his first album, “Custer Died for Your Sins” (1970), was taken from the book by his friend Vine Deloria Jr. The book became a manifesto for a generation of Native Americans, and Mr. Westerman’s bitterly humorous portrayals — like the one of anthropologists who study Indians — were just as caustic.
One song, called “Task Force” contained the lyrics: “Let’s send a task force down from Washington and check out the complaints/The Indians are unhappy and they’re putting on the paint.”
Partly because his songs were so often critical of American history and society, Mr. Westerman seemed to achieve greater popularity in foreign countries; he made more than 60 foreign tours. In the United States, he collaborated and appeared with singers like Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Buffy Sainte-Marie.
His resonant voice was well-suited for the country-western style songs he wrote. Last year he released “A Tribute to Johnny Cash” to positive reviews.
Floyd Red Crow Westerman was born on Aug. 17, 1936, on the Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota Sioux reservation in South Dakota. He was sent to boarding schools where native language and customs were discouraged. In an interview with Native Peoples magazine in 2005, Mr. Westerman said, “You bite the bullet at the beginning and somehow survive.”
At the boarding school, he met Dennis Banks, who became a leader of the American Indian Movement. In 1973, Mr. Westerman was present at the deadly confrontation between A.I.M. and federal authorities at the town of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.
Mr. Westerman graduated from what was then Northern State College in South Dakota with a degree in secondary education, and moved to Denver, where he performed in lounges and piano bars. There, he and Mr. Deloria became friends and talked about the book Mr. Deloria was writing.
Mr. Westerman decided to tell the same story in songs. “We lifted songs out of these chapters,” he said.
In 1982, Mr. Westerman followed up with another album of Indian protest songs called “This Land Is Your Mother.” He branched out to other issues, touring with Sting to protest the destruction of rain forests and with Harry Belafonte to fight nuclear power. He battled the naming of sports teams after Indians.
His movie career began with “Renegades” (1989) in which he played the Lakota Sioux father of Lou Diamond Phillips.
Mr. Westerman is survived by his wife, Rosie, four daughters, a son and “at least” 10 grandchildren, Mr. Toretzky said.
Mr. Westerman’s reluctance to pull punches showed in a comment he made while performing at a benefit in Washington in 1988. The Washington Post quoted him as saying: “We don’t need no bullets or bombs to destroy this country. It will destroy itself. And that’s just fine with me.”
Floyd "Red Crow" Westerman -Just Another Holy Man