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10271The rez: 'There's a lot of healing to be done'

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  • Robert Schmidt
    Apr 1, 2007
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      The rez: 'There's a lot of healing to be done'
      Flags of Our Fathers star overcame hardships to run for chief of his
      Manitoba reserve, LEAH McLAREN discovers


      Adam Beach is a member of the bear clan -- and he's proud of it.

      Growing up near the Dog Creek reserve in rural Manitoba, he came to
      identify with his spirit animal, a creature that can be as ferocious and
      hardy as it is timid and wild. In spite of the elements and the threat of
      human violence, the average black bear, much like Adam Beach, somehow
      manages to survive.

      And that's why the 35-year-old actor was understandably uncomfortable when
      his Ottawa buddy, Senators hockey player Mike Fisher, had Beach over to his
      house and proudly showed him the carcasses of two dead bears -- the spoils
      of a recent hunting trip -- hanging in his cellar. "I told him, 'Oh my God,
      man. That's me hanging there.' "

      Not one to get easily offended, Beach said he laughed it off. And Fisher?
      "He apologized," Beach admits. "He didn't know." There's a lot people don't
      know about Adam Beach, but first let's talk about what we do know. Sitting
      in an interview recently at the Toronto offices of the National Aboriginal
      Achievement Foundation, Beach is looking alert and handsome, his black eyes
      sparkling as he sips a takeout coffee.

      And no wonder he's in a good mood. The actor's star is rising -- both north
      and south of the border. Beach, who still calls Ottawa his home, has done a
      string of critically lauded Hollywood movies, most recently working with
      Clint Eastwood on Flags of Our Fathers. He also appeared in Windtalkers
      with Nicolas Cage, a film about the American code-communications
      specialists in the Second World War; Smoke Signals; Lost in the Barrens,
      with Graham Greene; the Canadian film Dance Me Outside and its spinoff
      series, The Rez. He also stars in an upcoming HBO film, Bury My Heart at
      Wounded Knee, about the tragic impact the opening of the American West had
      on American Indian culture, along with Canadian-born actress Anna Paquin
      (to be broadcast May 27).

      But despite all this cross-border success, Beach remains committed to his
      country. Tonight in Edmonton, he is hosting the 14th annual National
      Aboriginal Achievement Awards and last year, he returned to his home
      reserve in Dog Creek and ran an unsuccessful campaign to become its new
      chief. MTV documented the effort as part of its Diary series, which aired
      on television last month.

      Beach says he ran for chief because his family (some of whom still live on
      the reserve) asked him to, and while he would have gladly taken up the
      reins as leader, he also wasn't entirely surprised when he lost.

      "Part of me was hoping I was going to win, but part of me also knew it
      wasn't going to happen. There is a lot of stuff in my community that people
      don't talk about. There's a lot of healing to be done and when you take
      someone like myself, who's coming in there with so much good power to make
      a change, you're tilting the balance, you're not part of the insecurities."

      Beach well knows the hardships of reserve life. His mother was killed by a
      drunk driver when Beach was only eight years old. She was eight months
      pregnant at the time. Beach's father, who struggled with depression,
      drowned himself not long after. While his two brothers stayed on in Dog
      Creek, young Adam was sent to Winnipeg, where he was adopted by his uncle
      and aunt.

      Because of his background, Beach doesn't drink, smoke or do drugs.

      "I'm actually pretty square," he concedes. "But I was fortunate. My parents
      died, but I got out and I wasn't affected [by the harsh conditions of
      reserve life] again. What I've learned on the outside I now want to bring
      back to them. It's not just for our community. I want to bring unity to our

      In the meantime, however, Beach will have to content himself with playing a
      lead role on a top-rated TV show, having been recently cast as Detective
      Chester Lake on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Not a bad gig for a

      "He's Mohawk, from the Bronx," Beach explains of his character. "His
      generations of family built New York, so he's very tied into architecture
      and the structure of the city. He can't sleep and there's a reason why he's
      with the SVU and why he's so committed to it. He was a victim himself. I'm
      asking them to make Chester a Pandora's box that's going to be opened over
      the next three years." The job will take him away from Ottawa and his sons,
      who live with Beach's first wife, Meredith Porter. When he is not filming
      in Manhattan, however, Beach says he intends to be back home with his kids.

      "My children are taking classes in Anishinaabe. I'm teaching them the
      significance of being Saulteaux." (Beach's tribe is among those of the
      Eastern Woodland Indians.) While Beach only speaks a bit of his indigenous
      language himself, he is determined to bring back traditional teachings for
      native children. "A lot of people don't realize that language is culture
      and once it dies, we die."

      Considering his impressive career trajectory, Beach seems to have precious
      little time for talking about stardom or his "craft." Instead he is focused
      on his leadership role as a visible member of Canada's aboriginal
      community. He travels extensively for speaking engagements and is currently
      working on a documentary about the history of the Saulteaux people.

      According to Jennifer Podemski, creative producer of this year's Aboriginal
      Achievement Awards show and an accomplished young aboriginal actress
      herself (she first met Beach on the set of Dance Me Outside), Beach takes
      on his role with rare enthusiasm.

      "Being an aboriginal actor is a huge responsibility," she told me during an
      interview at her office in downtown Toronto. "Sometimes it's hard to tell
      what comes from the outside world and what's actually you, but as you
      become more comfortable in your own skin it gets easier. It's still a
      struggle though. It's so hard just to get a job in the first place. There's
      a joke in the community. They say, 'You only go out at Thanksgiving.' "

      Beach, however, has no problem getting hired -- a gift Podemski attributes
      to his drive as an actor. She also recently worked with him on Moose TV and
      says, "He's very high-charisma, very focused on the now. He doesn't dwell
      on the past or the future. Everything with Adam is very quick and dirty,
      and completely in the moment."

      Beach says he'd like to take another crack at politics one day, be it in
      Dog Creek or at a national level. In the meantime, he is dedicated to
      getting the word out to native kids everywhere that there is life after the
      rez -- both on television and in real life.

      "With the reservation system, there is a feeling of being corralled. It's a
      system developed over a hundred years by the government to put the Indians
      far away from society, hopefully to die off. When people feel like cows,
      they can't do anything for themselves and that becomes the teaching within
      themselves," he says.

      "When you have high suicide rates in a community, you know that something
      is spiralling [downward]. Money alone is not going to save it. We need to
      address the real problems, and for that to happen, the real feelings need
      to come out. The truth.

      "Sometimes it's hard to face that."

      The 2007 National Aboriginal Achievement Awards air tonight at 8 ET on