Dear Misty Upham, I never met you but I wish I’d had a chance to talk to you.
As shallow as it sounds, I had a list. I’m pretty sure a lot of people have lists like these though. It was a list of people who really impressed with their talent, or with their conscience. People I wanted to meet or even work with some day. You, Misty, were on that list.
I’m glad you got to do the work that you did as an actor. Frozen River, August: Osage County, two great episodes of Big Love. Yet somehow, some media sources have the audacity to cite you as ‘Django Unchained Actress‘. I mean seriously, here you are, a SAG and Spirit nominee, rising in an industry painfully indifferent to Native American performers and a culture that is somehow increasingly insensitive to Native American traditions, yet they list your blink-and-you-miss-it, uncredited appearance. As if they would want people to question if the publicity you are getting is even warranted.
Your performances are proof that you were truly talented, they also made me see you as hope. There are countless mid-level Native American/First Nations names out there who just don’t get the right opportunity. Neither the late August Schellenberg nor Wes Studi became the actors of acclaim they could have, and should have, been. For me it was people like you who represented what could result in a rising tide. I saw you beyond Johnna or Lila, as someone in substantial roles that didn’t call for your Blackfeet ethnicity, but for your sheer skill. Call me an architect of castles in the sky, but there are times when I can see what an artist can be when given quality work. I saw that potential in you.
Your Twitter feed is sufficient proof, you were publicly known to raise your voice for a cause. Whether it was preservation of your culture or animal rights (a love we both share), you were never afraid to speak your mind for what was right. There are celebs who are genuine activists and there are those of who do it because CSR is mandatory to their PR strategy. The distinction is ever-clear and you certainly fell in the former category.
Your ability to recognize and stand up for situations greater than yourself is a diminishing quality in self-centered times. You did what you did with heart, and it earned you praise and respect from your community as well as your co-stars. It’s no surprise that Meryl Streep, Melissa Leo, and Juliette Lewis speak so highly of you in the wake of your passing.
Countless races are still misrepresented, if depicted at all, and the irony is that American culture doesn’t seem to identify those among its founding inhabitants. You rarely see an obvious Native American public figure or a well-known name associated to the people (though both Tyler Blackburn and Taylor Lautner admit to Native heritage). Years after Marlon Brando’s controversial gesture we’re still in the midst of watching caricature portrayals. Between angry old tribal chiefs, statuesque strongmen who don’t utter a word, and hypersexualized young women, they are never seen as just people, but rather an unattractive contrast to the supposedly modern civilization.
Every time Native American actors are cast in mainstream media projects, it’s primarily in some Last of the Mohicans type saga where they will get to play everything but the leads. Afterthoughts to the protagonists and the plot. Sidelined in their own universe with no stories of their own to tell. The closest it came to some degree of progression were the hormonal werewolves of The Twilight Saga, and that by no means was a grand step in the right direction.
We still find a despicable remake of the The Lone Ranger with Johnny Depp taking a fundamentally bigoted characterization and further reducing it to another one of his weirdo roles, or an obviously Caucasian Rooney Mara landing the Tiger Lily role in a Peter Pan origin story. And where do I even begin with Redface in cartoons? Or the fact that sports teams with names like Redskins and Braves still exist. Perhaps I should save that for another post.
It would’ve been so heartening to see you break barriers in the midst of all that and make a big name for yourself. There’s never been a Native Anna May Wong or Rita Moreno or Ruby Dee. How are we to know it couldn’t have been you? You did great work both on and off screen, there was no way you wouldn’t have earned the respect and accolades you were owed.
A few days ago, there was suddenly news that you went missing. I was surprised and so were countless others. Not even your family knew of your whereabouts.
Yesterday, the news broke that a body was found that matched your description. I still didn’t want to believe it. I hoped it was a giant misunderstanding and that you would show up to prove that the woman’s body wasn’t you.
Now, your family has officially identified the body as yours. You have died. Everything you could have been died with you.
I never knew you personally. I never got to know of your personal battles. In fact, so many people didn’t. All we’re all left with now is a bevvy of speculations. Were you bipolar? Were you hiding from the police? Are those self-mutilation marks on your arm? My personal response: I don’t care! A pristine image of your life is suddenly being muddied by gossip wires, comment threads, and so-called close relatives of your family.
Your life couldn’t have been easy either way, whether it was because you were outspoken or because you deviated from the norm. And now that your parents admit that foul play was involved in your death, the situation is even more tragic because it wasn’t nature taking its course, it was people’s negligence. What happened to you could have been prevented but as fate would have it, it wasn’t. You still leave a legacy behind, if only it had been a greater one.
Rest In Peace Misty Upham. You will always remain a star in my eyes.