Geraldine Keams Interview

Geraldine Keams: A Pillar of Native American Cinema [Interview]

Geraldine Keams: A Pillar of Native American Cinema

In March 2024, we had the privilege of conducting a mail correspondence interview with Geraldine Keams, a trailblazer in Native American cinema whose career spans several decades of groundbreaking work. From her early days growing up on the Navajo reservation to becoming a revered figure on the silver screen, Keams has not only portrayed a wide array of characters but also paved the way for future generations of Native American actors. Her journey is one of determination, resilience, and a deep commitment to cultural representation, making her a beacon of inspiration for both the Native American community and the film industry at large. This interview offers a rare glimpse into the life of an actress who has navigated the complexities of Hollywood while staying true to her roots, and whose contributions have fostered a greater appreciation for the richness of Native American storytelling.

About Geraldine Keams

Photo of Geraldine Keams
© Pamela J. Peters

Geraldine Keams, born on August 19, 1951, in Flagstaff, Arizona, is a celebrated Native American actress and storyteller. Growing up on the Navajo reservation, Keams found her calling in the arts early on, leading her to pursue drama and film studies at the University of Arizona. Her passion for acting took her to New York City, where she became involved with the Native American Theater Ensemble, marking the beginning of a prolific career in theater and film.

Keams made her film debut in the iconic “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976), directed by Clint Eastwood, and has since become a familiar face in both film and television. Her roles often embody strong, maternal figures, contributing significantly to the portrayal of Native American women in media. Beyond acting, Keams is dedicated to storytelling and education, conducting workshops and live performances that celebrate Native American culture.

Her recent work includes a recurring role in the Peacock sitcom “Rutherford Falls” (2021), further cementing her status as a pillar of Native American representation in contemporary cinema. Residing in Pasadena, California, Keams continues to inspire through her art, serving as a bridge between cultures and generations.

Geraldine Keams Interview

Geraldine Keams as Little Moonlight in The Outlaw Josey Wales
Geraldine Keams as Little Moonlight in The Outlaw Josey Wales | ©1976 Warner Bros.

1. Reflecting on your role as Little Moonlight in “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” what was your approach to portraying such a nuanced character, and how did you prepare for the role?
There’s no real way to prepare. I had the dialogue, I had to know where the camera was and I had to know my boundaries. The character came naturally with the wardrobe, using my Navajo language as authentically as I could. I also watched other actors, veterans in the business.
2. Can you share your experience working on “The Outlaw Josey Wales”, maybe something interesting that happened on set?
One day a tourist bus came up to set. There was a crowd gathered near the set. A woman asked the real Clint Eastwood—where’s Clint Eastwood? He pointed to a tall actor standing by a horse. The actor played one of the bounty hunters. We had a good laugh over it.
3. “The Outlaw Josey Wales” is a film that has stood the test of time. Looking back, what do you believe was the impact of your character and the film on the portrayal of Native Americans in Hollywood? 1
I believe first of all—the script was good. It played the Native people in an authentic way. Clint gave us rein over delivery. We made changes in the script to make it more authentic and real.
4. What was it like working with Clint Eastwood? How did you build such great on-screen chemistry?
Clint was a very open and generous person. He was a good listener. He made me feel at ease. He was the same both on and off camera. Low-key, but he knew every detail of filming. His actors and crew were like family—many worked for him on all of his films. It was an honor to work with him.
5. As a woman in the entertainment industry, what changes have you observed over the course of your career in terms of opportunities and challenges for women?
There are more women producers, writers, and directors now which is good. Recently, there’s been a boom of Native American filmmakers making their mark in the national and international world of filmmaking. Still though, as we get older to find good roles, we are still being typecast but that can change with younger Native American filmmakers.
6. Throughout your career, you’ve been a strong advocate for Native American representation in the arts. What changes have you seen over the years, and where do you feel the industry still needs to grow?
I’d like to see more storytellers build a bridge between local communities and the greater racially mixed audiences throughout the world. There’s still a gap in the public awareness of Native American cultures as living in the here and now. So many stories still to tell.
7. In addition to acting, you’ve given live performances and workshops. What motivates you to engage with audiences in these more intimate settings, and what do you hope they take away from the experience?
It was a wonderful experience for audiences to learn from authentic voices. To say we’re still here! The public does appreciate learning about who we are then and now. I think most Americans still have a learning curve about who Native Americans are. Historically, it’s not a pretty picture, however, we need to go forward with forgiveness and understanding. I’m all about bringing people together.
8. Your role in “Rutherford Falls” has been described as “Navajo royalty.” How did you approach this role, and what was it like working on a show that centers around relationships between a Native American tribe and their neighboring town? 2
My role in this show was to be helpful to younger actors who are just beginning their careers. Giving them advice in their acting careers. The show was based on breaking down barriers. My character is “old school” and still harbors prejudice against the town and it’s history. My character Rayanne takes no nonsense from anyone, but is also very realistic and honest about the world she lives in. Too bad it got canceled.
9. Finally, Given the recent recognition of Native American actresses like Lily Gladstone in Hollywood, how do you feel about the progress being made towards more inclusive and representative storytelling, especially considering your own pioneering role in the industry? 3
There are good moves forward and lots of work to do in bridging the communication gap. We need honesty, accuracy, and authentic voices. The dream is for Native Americans to develop their own film industry. I hope this happens in my lifetime or at least make a dent in telling our stories our way!
Footnotes:
1 “The Outlaw Josey Wales” – A 1976 American Revisionist Western film directed by Clint Eastwood.
2 “Rutherford Falls” – A comedy television series that premiered on Peacock in 2021.
3 Lily Gladstone – A Native American actress known for her roles in various films and television series.

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