Saginaw Grant was the Native American actor who came to film and television late in his life, but continued to play notable roles alongside stars such as Johnny Depp, Anthony Hopkins, and Armie Hammer.
In addition to his acting work, Grant, who died at the age of 85, was the hereditary chief of the Sac and Fox Nation, the largest of the tribes of the Sauk and Meskwaki peoples. “Aboriginal people are my main concern,” Grant once said. “Respect your culture, be open with everything and everyone and be honest so that people believe in what you say. Deep within ourselves, we all have a 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 the Ponca Military Academy and served in the Marine Corps during the Korean War.
Grant’s acting debut took place in a television commercial for Chrysler vehicles. While leading a writer’s seminar in the California Bay Area, he was invited by one of his clients to appear in an advertisement. Asked about his previous acting experience, he replied to the client: “Only a reindeer in a first year Christmas play.” He then commented, “I had to believe in myself that I could do it, and I did. “
By the late 1980s, he had started playing minor roles in movies and TV shows. His first big screen role portrayed 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 then worked with Anthony Hopkins on The fastest Indian in the world (2005), a biopic on the biker Burt Munro.
His most famous character is probably that of Chief Big Bear in the Disney adaptation of The Lonely Ranger (2013), alongside Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer. In a memorable dialogue, Chief Big Bear tells the Lone Ranger of Tonto’s experience as a young man, saving two men from the desert. When asked later which of his performances had been his favorite, he replied, “This role – The Lonely Ranger. I really like the role I played, even though I get killed; I have probably died in a lot of the movies that I have acted in.
On television, Grant appeared frequently in Western Deer, a comedy-drama set on a Nevada ranch, starring Beau Bridges and his father Lloyd, in 1993-94. Highly requested for Native American roles, he continued 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 are not there, because of all the distractions. The last three generations are lost, they don’t know who they are. Yes, they know the name of their tribe, but they have no position in their tribe.
In 2018, his album Don’t let the drums be silent, a compilation of 15 Native American music tracks, won the Record of the Year award at the Native American Music Awards, which also honored it with the Living Legend Award.
Grant’s publicist Lani Carmichael said, “Saginaw has always been the happiest at the powwow, sharing the love, energy and tradition of his people. Watching the children grow up in the traditions of their ancestors and sharing the spirits of dancing to the beat of the drum brought her both joy and peace.
She continued, “It is with a heavy heart that we announce that a warrior was 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 has remained a fan of the Sooner Nation.
He is survived by his daughter, Lisa Grant, and his adopted daughter, actress Mariana Tosca.
Saginaw Grant, Native American actor and leader, born July 20, 1936, died July 28, 2021