Kiowa actor ‘stood a little straighter’ after landing role as a chief of his tribe

Gary Tsoodle poses with Kiowa elder Dorothy WhiteHorse, who coached the 10-year-old star of “News of the World,” on set in New Mexico. (Photo courtesy of Lynda DeLaune)

After nearly 30 years of playing Indigenous characters, Gary Tsoodle finally played someone from his Kiowa Tribe.

His star may be rising after his role as the chief in “News of the World,” starring Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel.

Tsoodle, 62, who has acted in “Last of the Dogmen” and “Last of the Mohicans,” learned he would portray the Kiowa chief shortly after arriving at the cast’s hotel in Sante Fe, New Mexico, in 2019.

“I immediately felt honored,” he recalled. “I stood up a little straighter at that point. To be doing something like that, to be in that position, I took it as a feather in my cap.”

Tsoodle, who works for the city of Anadarko, Oklahoma, has been answering casting calls since the 1990s. He said he appreciated the Kiowa research that was done by “News of the World” producers and their use of Kiowa actors.

“This particular instance, they contacted the Kiowa Tribe because the Natives in the movie were Kiowas,” he said. “So I thought that was a good positive step, you know, get Kiowas to play Kiowas, because I’ve been Cheyenne three times in different movies.”

Although there have been several movies loosely based on other nations, such as the Lakotas in “Dances With Wolves,” the Apaches in “Geronimo” and the Mohicans in “The Last of the Mohicans,” few have been specifically about the Kiowa Tribe, Tsoodle said.

It’s “about time” that Kiowa culture started getting better representation in the film industry, he said, adding that he’d like to see a movie where Kiowas are at the center.

“They were nomadic and they were warlike, and they were horsemen,” Tsoodle said. “They didn’t really go around like all Natives have been shown to be in movies, where they were the savages and they were the out-of-control beings that they were.

“You know, they were pretty sophisticated, and had their way of life and lived it. Didn’t bother nobody unless they were bothered.”

In the movie, Johanna has been captured by the Kiowa after her German family is killed in Texas. Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a Confederate Civil War veteran who goes town to town reading the news to settlers, encounters the girl and arranges to return her to an aunt and uncle. Johanna, however, remembers nothing from her days before the Kiowa, and she’s reluctant to be “rescued.”

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In one scene, Johanna has a life-saving encounter with a band of Kiowa who kept watch over her during her long journey with Kidd. Without their assistance, Kidd and Johanna likely would have perished.

The Indigenous film industry will be prominent this year in Oklahoma, as the Osage story “Killers of the Flower Moon,” directed by Martin Scorsese, and the Muscogee Creek television comedy series “Reservation Dogs” are set to be filmed in the state.

Tsoodle said his career began when he was cast in the television miniseries “North & South” (1985-94), based on John Jakes’ novel about the Civil War and its effect on two families. In 1995, he appeared in “Last of the Dogmen” in Mexico and Canada, and after that, he said, people “were calling him for different things.”

“And so I kind of thought I might have been on to something, but I had a daughter at home and I was single and raising her,” Tsoodle said. “I couldn’t just up and leave.”

But now with “News of the World,” he’s ready to take the casting calls again.

Gaylord News reporter Nancy Marie Spears is a member of the Cherokee Nation.

Gaylord News is a reporting project of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication. Cronkite News has partnered with OU to expand coverage of Indigenous communities.