It's one of those great discovery stories. Rudy Youngblood was working at a Lowe's home improvement store in Texas and performing with a Native American theatre troupe when he hit the casting jackpot: a starring role in Mel Gibson's 2006 Mayan epic, Apocalypto. In an industry with few high-profile Native American actors, the 24-year-old Youngblood paid homage to his Comanche, Cree, and Yaqui heritage in a slew of interviews. "I have ancestors who fought at Wounded Knee and Little Big Horn, so it's not hard to use my Native American heritage for this role," he told Time magazine
Apocalypto was a modest hit; Youngblood signed with ICM. On April 14 he is to receive an acting award from First Americans in the Arts, a nonprofit group that honors Native Americans in entertainment—a seemingly fairy-tale ending.
But there's a major flaw in Youngblood's tale, according to Comanche scholar and commentator David Yeagley, who for almost a year has accused the actor of falsifying his Native American ancestry. "Rudy is apparently not American Indian at all, despite what the publicity says about him," Yeagley wrote in a Dec. 12, 2006, post on his website, BadEagle.com. "It is identity theft, usurping the honor of those Indians who died for the blood of their people. Hollywood, apparently as well as Rudy, has no appreciation for this. Indians do."
A March 28 Los Angeles Times article took the controversy, which has been brewing in Native American online forums, into the mainstream. Jolene Schonchin, a spokesperson for the Comanche Nation, supported Youngblood and told the Times he "is not on our tribal rolls, but he does have Comanche blood. His blood comes from his paternal side. His father was a full-blooded Comanche and a prominent member of the Comanche tribe, Preston Tahchawwickah."
However, Youngblood told the Times and wrote on his website that Tahchawwickah is his adoptive father. According to www.rudyyoungblood .com, "As a young boy, Preston and Fern Tahchawwickah brought Rudy into their family as their son. He was also adopted Cree and is a member of the SlimJohn family. Like many Native people, Rudy is an integral part of several Indian families throughout the United States."
But adoption into a Comanche family may not be enough for Yeagley or the Comanche Nation. Under the precepts of the Nation's constitution, to officially enroll, applicants must provide documentation, such as birth certificates or other federal documents, proving they are at least one-eighth Comanche Indian. The actor told the Times his biological mother is Comanche and his biological father is Yaqui, but he did not provide their names.
Other evidence suggests Youngblood is part African American and/or Hispanic. His biography on the Internet Movie Database states his mother is half African American and he changed his last name from "Gonzales." Youngblood said in the Times article that in the past he has used the name Gonzales, which is his stepfather's. Ironically, if Youngblood's roots are Mexican and/or Central American, the actor might be more closely related to the people of Jaguar Paw, the Mayan character he portrayed in Apocalypto.
So far, Youngblood is keeping the specifics of his genetics under wraps. He told the Times, "I am Comanche. I'm not going to go into names. My tribe knows it. That is all that needs to be said." Youngblood's representative declined to schedule an interview between the actor and Back Stage.
Actor Mark Reed, who serves as chairman and national representative for American Indians in Film and Television, an advocacy group for Native Americans in entertainment, said the issue goes beyond Yeagley's beef with Youngblood. "Both Rudy and David Yeagley need to consider the impact they're having on the entire American Indian community of artists," he said. "Although David Yeagley is making very poignant points about it, he needs to take that into consideration. But at the same time, Rudy Youngblood has an obligation to Indian country to dispel these charges rather than avoiding it."
The controversy comes at a particularly bad time for Native American actors, who are starving for TV and film work. In a recent study of scripted television series from fall 2005 to fall 2006, Reed's organization found there was not one Native American actor among 400 regular roles, 1,000 recurring roles, and 8,000 guest roles. In January a UCLA study of TV and film casting breakdowns from June 1 to Aug. 31, 2006, found only 0.5 percent of roles called for Native American actors.
And even when the odd roles are offered, they're usually less than desirable. "They're very limited roles, and they're always stereotypical roles…. Unless the individual really is of the American Indian community, they can represent Indians in a very demeaning way without even knowing it," Reed said, adding that the eruption between Yeagley and Youngblood could narrow that playing field even further. "If there's a controversy that goes on every time they hire an American Indian when the community comes out and says he's not an Indian…[casting directors] say, 'Look, we don't want to take the time or energy to deal with that.' They'd rather cast somebody else."
Yeagley responded that while he recognizes the dearth of Native American roles, he is protecting his people and culture by questioning Youngblood. "If you're not Indian, don't claim to be. That's a simple, logical response," Yeagley said. "[Youngblood] could say he loves Indian culture, he loves participating in it, he even loves playing an Indian role. Fine. But to pick a family name like that and claim that's your bloodline…we're talking about a case of fraud here."
Reed and Yeagley agreed that Youngblood could put the whole situation to rest by proving his ancestry in a number of ways, the simplest of which would be to produce a letter from a Comanche official recognizing his lineage. Yeagley said he would be satisfied if the actor simply made public the names of his family members enrolled in the Comanche Nation.
Both also acknowledge that thousands of U.S. citizens claim to be Native American without officially belonging to a tribe. Reed said enrolling in one of the 562 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes can be an exhausting process, particularly because each tribe has its own enrollment criteria.
According to the Comanche Nation's website, there are more than 13,000 enrolled members. Reed said Youngblood must prove he is at least related by blood to one of them or face damaging his career. "When you become a public figure as an actor, then the public owns you, and you need to dispel these kinds of rumors and charges because it has a great impact on the rest of the Indians," he said. "It's no different than being a public figure and you say, 'I have a Harvard degree.' Well, show me your degree."