Outside my window is a woodpecker tapping away at an oak tree. To most, this is of no importance. But to Larry Sellers, it has meaning. Perhaps even a message from one who has already passed on. There is the old comic quip, ‘I am not a doctor, but I play one on TV.’ If this were Sellers, he would tweak that quip and say, I am an Indian, and I played one on TV. However, to say he is just an Indian is a gross understatement.
This Pawhuska native is the very definition of what it truly means to be a Native American. Sipping black coffee from a mug with the word “Lakota” stamped on it and surrounded by walls adorned with Indian art certainly reinforces his conviction for the pride that all native peoples should feel about their heritage.
HERITAGE VERSUS HOLLYWOOD
Although Sellers is of Osage/Cherokee heritage and an adopted member of the Lakota tribe, his character Cloud Dancing on the television show Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman was a role where he portrayed an Indian of the Cheyenne tribe. He told the producers that for him to play the part, the character must be brought across as the representation of the real Native American both of tribal ethnicity and as a whole of the Native American peoples.
Sellers acting credits include movies such as “Son of the Morning Star,” “Quick and the Dead,” “Revolution,” “Like Father — Like Son,” “Assassination, and “Wayne’s World II.” plus his television credits. He was also a stuntman during his career.
For Sellers, though, acting was art imitating life. Above being an actor or stuntman, Sellers has always been true to himself first. He even turned down a role in the Kevin Costner film Dances With Wolves because an agreement could not be made that allowed him the four days required for him to participate in the Sundance Ceremony.
THE LONG JOURNEY
At the age of 28, his mother passed away, and his father’s health was in decline. Sellers then began walking around the Indian Camp not far from where he lived. Suddenly he sees a vision of Indians dancing and hears the word “Sundance” spoken to him.
He had no idea what that was as he had never heard the term. At that moment and feel compelled to act, he prayed and said if his dad’s health improved, he would track down the origins of that word.
“The very next day, my father was totally different.” With his father’s restored health, he began carrying through with his promise and started researching just precisely what is Sundance. It didn’t take long to learn that it was a native ceremony. Learning its full meaning, however, would take a bit longer. The Sundance, he realized, was the most important ceremony practiced by the Lakota (Sioux) and nearly all Plains Indians.
It was an act of renewal for the tribe, people, and earth per definition. But as Sellers explains, it is actually a religious revival of sorts with humility at its core. The prayers and sacrifice of no food and water for four days and the dance are gifts to the universe and for all peoples as well. Also, they are pleas for help and offerings of thanks to those alive and those who have passed on to the next stage of life’s journey.
Sellers was instructed about the ceremony from the Lakota in South Dakota. After dancing with them, he was guided by them to bring the dance back to the Osage people. That was 19 years ago. Sellers has been dancing now for 38 years, keeping the journey began by his ancestors moving into the 21st century.
THE NATIVE TONGUE
In his plight to keep the traditions of old alive, Sellers operates two non-profit organizations. The first is the Missionary Society for the Preservation of Traditional Values, which emphasizes traditional native values of spirituality. People from all over the US are members of this organization and actively work to keep the heritage and history of Native Americans alive.
The other is Friends of the Osage Language. This is where members raise money to help in providing students with the tools necessary for creating a positive self-image for themselves in using the language. One way in which he aids in the organization’s success is by speaking to students in Osage, thus prompting them to do the same and to be proud that they can talk in their ancestral tongue. “Our language is our identity, a part of who we are. It’s our culture.”
Dr. Quinn was the first show to incorporate native thought into their writing. It was a good thing for indigenous peoples because it was a chance to humanize us and not portray tribes as the mighty warrior bands.
“ We laugh, we cry, we joke, we mourn. We do all those things.” Sellers was the technical advisor on the show. As such, he pointed out distinctions such as why would the producers wish to portray a white man on the show that could speak Southern Cheyenne fluently, but he, as a Cheyenne, could only speak broken English. In other words, why would one race of people be more intelligent than another race? This stereotype is what he worked to change through his efforts on the show and in his personal life.
He believes, as his ancestors did. Everything in nature is alive with a language to communicate and that all life is connected, even when that life passes into the spirit realm. Connecting with nature in modern churches is not something practiced. But traditional Indian ceremonies and customs were the worship of all things in nature; a connection to all life, he explained Sellers hope through his efforts, those of Native American ancestry will embrace those elements of tribal culture which defines them as a single race worthy of preservation.
LARRY SELLERS HEADED HOME
Without going into too much history of Indians and their removal from their homelands in the expanding US of the 19th century. Sellers explained the white culture should understand that through European beliefs of civilization and Christianity and their use of techniques such as boarding schools designed to ‘educate’ their native lifestyle out and reprogram them to the white ways and the Indian Removal Act of 1830. It was a type of cultural genocide that was used to drive out the old ways to make way for the white man’s definition of civilization and assimilation to the majority-European culture.
It’s not that Sellers has an issue with the modern world or its beliefs. He doesn’t. His passion for preserving traditional customs and values comes from the realization that what was once a trusted belief system for generations is not wrong now merely because it is no longer the dominant belief system of the modern culture. In many ways, his efforts are to provide a journey home. Taking all people back to a time and place where the connection between people and nature was nourished, and those native peoples flourished within the embrace of Mother Nature.