Litefoot Inspires Pride in Indian Heritage
The star of 'The Indian in the Cupboard' raps his message in song for native American children
Vancouver, British Columbia — Litefoot is the first native American to be a rapper, a writer, and an actor. His single "The Messenger" will be out this month; his album "Seven Years of Darkness" will be released by Red Vinyl next month; his biography will be published in 1996; and he is now appearing in his first acting role, starring as "Little Bear" in Paramount's film "The Indian in the Cupboard."
"All my life," says the young member of the Cherokee nation, "I've walked both worlds. My grandfather ran away from Indian boarding school in the sixth grade and worked hard to survive. He spent the rest of his life helping his family get along in contemporary society.
"My granddad taught me to be strong, and not to be ashamed of my Indian heritage. He didn't want me to be happy with second best. It wasn't all work, for I grew up in a house filled with music - with the Jackson Five, the Temptations, and the Spinners being family favorites."
A native Oklahoman, Litefoot used his American name, Gary Paul Davis, when he attended the University of Tulsa. He excelled in sports, especially football, but his penchant for writing poetry didn't fit into his sports world.
"Three years ago I was struggling. I'd always written poetry, but there didn't seem to be much future in that. Then my sister, who was working with a band, asked me to write a rap on one of her songs.
"When the band heard it, they asked me to perform it. Things snowballed from that. The problem was I wasn't happy. I kept feeling I wasn't doing what I should be.
"My grandfather had always cautioned me not to settle - if you want to be a lawyer, don't be happy as a paralegal. I felt that there was something more I should be doing than writing rap lyrics.
"One evening after I'd been working on getting the songs ready, I came home so tired I just stretched out across the bed. I remember praying to the Creator, 'Tell me what you want me to do, and I'll do it.' "
He fell asleep and dreamed about standing at the base of a mountain, and he looked up and saw himself walking with a little boy holding one hand and a little girl the other.
The next morning, Litefoot received a phone call. It was a friend from a nearby reservation asking if he'd come and talk to some children. "I didn't know what in the world I could tell them, but I agreed."
On the way, Litefoot remembered that when he was a child and had to listen to speeches, he'd get restless and tune out. He decided to rap to them. His music - about being proud of their ancestry, their traditions, their roots - got the youngsters clapping. They were motivated. Instead of leaving, Litefoot stayed at the reservation a week, talking with the teenagers, playing sports with them, and showing he was one of them.
"My people need a role model. I'm not saying I'm it, but I do know that the Creator kept putting things in my life that shoved me into learning how to talk with the kids. From that first visit, I knew what he wanted me to do - to open the doors and knock down the walls the kids had built up. When others had talked with them, they didn't listen. But using the music made the message go right in."
Since that first speech, he has appeared at 96 reservations from Maine to Alaska and throughout Canada.
His rap songs, tinged with native American lore and tradition, have been noticed abroad. He was invited to Rome for "The Feather, the Flute, the Drum," a festival of native American contemporary and traditional arts, which is part of a larger festival about the American West, organized partially by the American Indian College Fund (AICF).
When Paramount was looking for a native American to play "Little Bear," they contacted the AICF, which put them in touch with Litefoot. Producers Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall, and Jane Startz asked him to come to Los Angeles to test for "The Indian in the Cupboard."
This is the famous children's story written by Lynne Reid Banks, which has sold over 5 million copies. In it, a little boy is given an old cupboard. Then, his mom finds an antique key that fits the lock, and the imaginative adventure begins. The nine-year-old places an antique Indian toy in the cupboard. When he unlocks it, he discovers the three-inch Indian has come to life!
When Paramount signed Litefoot, they got more than an actor. In playing the 18th-century native American, Litefoot put screenwriter Melissa Mathison in touch with Jeanne Shenandoah, a member of the Onondaga nations living in Syracuse, N.Y.
To make his character more accurate, Litefoot shaved his head, except for a small circle on top, from which hung a long braid. He wore specially made lobes to elongate his ears, as if heavy rings had created quarter-size openings. He also endured hours of makeup tests to get the authentic tattoos on the sides of his head and upper arms.
It was evident that Litefoot was proud of his native American heritage and wanted his character to be historically authentic.
Ask him what his goal is today, and he answers thoughtfully, "To listen to the Creator. He has led me to motivate children with music and words.
"When I was leaving the reservation at Wind River, Wyoming, I was fortunate to get the last seat on the plane. When I sat down, the lady next to me looked me up and down and exclaimed, 'I have to sit next to that through the whole flight!'
"At first, I was insulted, then hurt, then inspired. I pulled out the back of an envelope and wrote a rap song. I called it 'Seeing Red,' and it's one of my most popular. My grandfather told me, 'Let it roll off your back. Always worry about yourself, not others.' I try to do that every day."