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
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