When Wes Studi received his honorary Oscar last October at the Motion Picture Academy's Governors Awards, Q'orianka Kilcher (along with US Poet Laureate Joy Harjo and actor Christian Bale) presented the prestigious prize to him.
Their connection? Kilcher, then 14 years old, had played Pocahontas alongside Bale and Studi in 2005's The New World, written and directed by Terrence Malick. In 2017, she starred opposite Studi in Hostiles.
"Wes, in accepting the Oscar, was representing all Indigenous people in that moment," Kilcher recalls. "It was so exciting and amazing to see his work being truly recognized and celebrated. It was such a huge milestone for the Indigenous community to show we're not relics and we're still here and very much alive."
Over the course of her career, the actress has appeared in projects including The Alienist, Yellowstone, Sons of Anarchy, Princess Kaiulani—in which she starred in the title role-- and Dora and the Lost City of Gold.
Kilcher is of mixed background – her father is Peruvian Quechua-Huachipaeri and her mother is of Swiss-German descent, and she is an adopted member of the Diné (Navajo) tribe. Still, she says she has often been considered not Native enough or not white enough.
"It's two different worlds I'm straddling, and it's important to talk about this. I've encountered a lot of bullying," she admits. "There's a bridge that needs to be addressed. I used to be ashamed, and now I own it. I'm Native and I'm white. I'm proud to be both. Work is not defined by the color of my skin."
Kilcher, whose first name means "Golden Eagle" in the Quechuan language, is not alone is dealing with those challenges, and hopes that her experiences can inspire others.
"My biggest message to mixed background people is don't see it as something bad because Mother Earth made us in different ways. Having multi-cultural backgrounds is something to be celebrated. It's beautiful and great," she says. "I want them to know they're not alone in these feelings. Wes was one of those people who supported. That's so vital and important for us as human beings--recognizing issues and letting each other know you're not alone."
Kilcher's human rights and environmental activism, like her acting career, began at a young age. After attending fact-finding tours and speaking out about corporate exploitation of Indigenous people in the Amazon, she was appointed as a youth ambassador for Amnesty International and for Amazon Watch.
In 2010, she was arrested during a protest at the White House over the multinational extractive industry's effect on communities.
Kilcher had chained herself to a fence and her mother, Saskia, poured a black substance over her as a visual disruption to the visit of Peru's president Alan Garcia, who was meeting with president Barack Obama. Charges against both women were later dropped after they completed some community service work.
To further spread the message of the issues most important to her, Kilcher created the on-Q initiative. Its mission is connecting young Hollywood with global projects that support environmental sustainability, corporate accountability, basic human rights and universal dignity and compassion.
Recent acting projects have given Kilcher reasons to believe that current images in media can begin to overcome negative stereotypes promulgated over decades on the big and small screens.
"On Yellowstone, in which I play the badass role of Angela Blue Thunder, the writing is so impeccable, like I've never seen," she says. "[Series creator] Taylor Sheridan and Paramount are creating a space for that. We don't constantly ride on horseback. We're lawyers and doctors and drive cabs, and that begins to break down the stereotypes. In movies in the past, we're savages. Humanizing and being relatable is a step in the right direction."
It is the Native community's responsibility to help educate and push for accurate and dignified representation of themselves onscreen, Kilcher believes.
"It starts with the team and cultural advisors beginning to have care and understanding," she says. "On Hostiles, we had a great cultural advisor. [Writer/director] Scott Cooper was so receptive to it, taking time before shooting every day. He didn't know much about Native culture. It's up to us to help those who are open. We were to given the tools we needed and we weren't afraid to ask for them."
During the pandemic, she's been shooting a feature film on iPhone, documenting what's happening with COVID-19, social justice and the BLM movement.
"I'm a bit overwhelmed," says Kilcher. "I did lose several friends, five people in a month. It's given me a new perspective on life and an understanding on death, and what are long-term and not temporary solutions and how to best support."
"The world has come to a point that old ways have gone on for too long," she says. "I feel there is a shift in human consciousness and re-finding our humanity. Along with that and what it means to be a human being, I think everyone will start being more aware of choices and projects across the board."