Saginaw Grant: Actor who brought Native American culture to the big screen

Although he began his career later on in life, Grant went on to play several memorable roles

Marcus Williamson
Thursday 12 August 2021 00:01
<p>The actor at a Netflix premiere in 2015</p>

The actor at a Netflix premiere in 2015

Saginaw Grant was the Native American actor who came to film and television late in life but went on to play notable roles alongside stars such as Johnny Depp, Anthony Hopkins and Armie Hammer.

As well as his work as an actor, Grant, who has died aged 85, was the hereditary chief of the Sac and Fox Nation, the largest of the tribes of Sauk and Meskwaki peoples. “The Native people are my main concern,” Grant once said. “Respect your culture, be open with everything and everybody and be honest so people come to believe in what you are saying. Way down deep, we all have spirituality.”

Saginaw Morgan Grant was born in Pawnee, Oklahoma, in 1936 to Sarah and Austin Grant. Growing up on a farm with his two brothers and a sister, he learned traditional Native American medicine and spiritual ceremonies from his grandfathers, Kirvin and Saginaw. He attended Ponca Military Academy and served in the marine corps during the Korean War.

Grant’s acting debut came in a television advertisement for Chrysler vehicles. While running a writer’s seminar in the California Bay Area, he was invited by one of his clients to appear in a commercial. When asked about his previous acting experience, he replied to the client, “Only a reindeer in a Christmas play in the first grade.” He later commented: “I had to believe in myself that I could do it, and I did.”

By the late 1980s, he had started to take minor parts in films and television shows. His first big-screen role was playing the character of Freddie Man Wolf in War Party (1988), directed by Franc Roddam, which explores the subject of mistrust between Native Americans and white Americans. He later worked with Anthony Hopkins on The World’s Fastest Indian (2005), a biopic about the motorcyclist Burt Munro.

His best-known character is probably that of Chief Big Bear in the Disney adaptation of The Lone Ranger (2013), alongside Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer. In a memorable dialogue, Chief Big Bear tells the Lone Ranger of Tonto’s experience in his youth, rescuing two men from the desert. When Grant was later asked which of his performances had been his favourite, he replied: “This role – The Lone Ranger. I really like the part I played, even though I do get killed; I probably have died in a lot of movies I’ve been in.”

Saginaw Grant with Johnny Depp, and Armie Hammer at ‘The Lone Ranger’ premiere in 2013

On television, Grant frequently appeared in Harts of the West, a comedy-drama set on a ranch in Nevada, starring Beau Bridges and his father Lloyd, during 1993-94. Much in demand for Native American roles, he went on to feature in the unforgettable Breaking Bad episode, “Ozymandias”, where he is seen selling a truck to Walter White.

Speaking about his impressions of traditional Native American life in modern times, he said in an interview: “There are a lot of things that are gone today, that aren’t here, because of all the distractions. The last three generations became lost, they don’t know who they are. Yeah, they know the name of their tribe, but they don’t have a position in their tribe.”

In 2018, his album Don’t Let the Drums Go Silent, a 15-track compilation of Native American music, won Record of the Year at the Native American Music Awards, which also honoured him with the Living Legend Award.

Grant’s publicist, Lani Carmichael, said: “Saginaw was always happiest at pow wow sharing the love, energy and tradition of his people. Watching the children grow in the traditions of their ancestors and to share in the spirits of dance to the beat of the drum brought him both joy and peace.”

She continued: “It’s with heavy hearts we announce a warrior has been called home... He loved both Oklahoma and LA... He made his home here as an actor, but he never forgot his roots in Oklahoma. He remained a fan of the Sooner Nation.”

He is survived by his daughter, Lisa Grant, and adopted daughter, Mariana Tosca, an actor.

Saginaw Grant, actor and Native American chief, born 20 July 1936, died 28 July 2021