TAHLEQUAH – Whether it is Rock Hudson playing “Young Bull” in Winchester ’73, Elvis Presley as a character named Joe Whitecloud, or stories of Natives and other minorities being whitewashed to accommodate casts of European stock, Hollywood’s awarding of roles has caused annoyance among many ethnic groups for decades.
In recent years, film and TV productions have made increased efforts to match casting decisions more accurately to open more roles to minorities and for the sake of basic authenticity. Such efforts have produced results, though there are plenty of bumps in the road.
One such bump appears to be the casting of teenager Ian Ousley – he turns 20 on March 28 – as the Native character Sokka in the upcoming live-action version of Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Ousley was described by his management as mixed-race and, indistinctly, “of the Cherokee tribe.” Alex Kim, executive producer and showrunner of Avatar: The Last Airbender, describes the production as “Asian and Indigenous characters as living, breathing people.”
But after fans were unable to verify Ousley’s claim of Native heritage, the social platforms TikTok and Twitter served as virtual battlespace between those irritated by his casting, and those believing it wasn’t such a big deal – or that his claims of Native lineage weren ‘t unfounded.
The Twitter handle @7genvoices – a group of Last Airbender fans who are Native or mixed-race – posted several screenshots showing the Cherokee Nation, United Keetoowah Band nor Eastern Band claimed Ousley as a citizen.
Going further, @7genvoices posted a screenshot suggesting Ousley’s claimed membership is with the “Southern Cherokee Nation of Kentucky,” one of dozens of federally unacknowledged tribes decried as false by the three recognized Cherokee governments.
SCNK members claim descent from Cherokees who were members of the Treaty Party and marched west in the Removal. They say their ancestors fled the Cherokee Nation for Kentucky around 1871 to escape violence following the Civil War. The SCNK has received some state and municipal acknowledgments, but a 2011 bill to give it official state recognition died in the Kentucky Senate after passing the House of Representatives.
It is possible that the ATLA production took the word of Ousley’s management at face value, or was satisfied with membership claimed in a tribe not federally recognized. It also seems CN resources were not consulted.
Many offices within the CN can quickly verify whether a person has citizenship, and one department in particular can advise the entertainment industry.
“With the exception of the Cherokee Phoenix inquiring, the Cherokee Nation Film Office has not been contacted in regards to Mr. Ousley,” said Jennifer Loren, director of the CNFO and Original Content. “He is not registered with CNFO and is not included in any of our directories, which are readily available for citizens of any federally recognized tribe to enroll in.”
Loren said the CNFO is an invaluable amenity for any production wanting to hire or cast Natives, film in the reservation or find information.
“Our film office’s mission is to increase the presence of Native Americans in every level of the film and TV industries while creating opportunities for economic development and jobs in the Cherokee Nation,” she said. “In pursuit of that mission, we encourage film and TV producers and tribal citizens to learn more about our goals, the significance of our first-of-their-kind Native American talent and crew directories and our other services by visiting our website.”
The CNFO’s site is at https://cherokee.film/.