Larry Sellers, The True Native American

by

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 rein­force 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. Sel­l­ars 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 Sel­l­ars though, act­ing was art imi­tat­ing life. Above being an actor or stunt­man, Sel­l­ars 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. Sel­l­ars 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 Sel­l­ars 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.

Sel­l­ars 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. Sel­l­ars 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, Sel­l­ars 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.” Sel­l­ars 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 wor­ship of all things in nature; a con­nec­tion to all life, he explained Sel­l­ars 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.

 

THE JOURNEY HOME

With­out going into too much his­to­ry of Indi­ans and their removal from their home­lands in the expand­ing US of the 19th cen­tu­ry. Sel­l­ars 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. Was a type of cul­tur­al geno­cide 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 Sel­l­ars has an issue with the mod­ern world or its beliefs. He doesn’t. His pas­sion for pre­serv­ing tra­di­tion­al cus­toms and val­ues come 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.

C. L. Har­mon

Lead Author

C. L. Har­mon

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