During our recent interview, Chaske Spencer commented on the looming crisis at the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation in Montana, “I’m just trying to stay cool, you know? I keep telling myself to just stay cool,” Spencer said.
After interviewing this rising star, it’s obvious that Spencer is cool, quite cool, however that’s not the way he meant it. “New Moon’s” reigning werewolf Sam Uley, confidante to Bella Swan and enemy of immortal Edward Cullen in the Twilight series, Spencer intends to use his fame for something more important than the usual “celebrity as clothing designer, perfumer or bottled water face” avenues.
“I’m not really in to the spotlight. It comes with the job but I’m not comfortable with it. I never have been,” Spencer explained. “I want to shift the focus to bring it to something that needs it very badly. I’m very fortunate in that I’m in a position where I can do that.”
Spencer wants to help his fellow 15,000 Cheyenne River Sioux who have been living on a 2.7 million acre reservation, roughly the size of the state of Connecticut, without electricity or water since January. Spencer wants the Cheyenne River Sioux to get the water infrastructure they were promised over 150 years ago in a public treaty with the Unites States government. On February 1st, 2010 the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe was forced to declare a state of emergency after severe ice storms and a below zero wind chill devastated the reservation, toppling more than 3000 power poles and leaving 13,000 people with no power, heat or water. Although some private corporations have helped with supplies, no one in the US government and few outside of Montana have heard or cared about the Cheyenne River Sioux’ desperate situation.
Finally in mid-February, someone did hear and, as luck would have it, 34-year-old Sioux actor Chaske Spencer also cared. Like his New Moon character, Spencer has lived on reservations. Born in Oklahoma, Spencer grew up in Fort Peck, Montana as well as on reservations in Idaho. Between his high school counselor father and his high school teacher mother, Spencer is of the Lakota or Sioux, Nez Pierce, Cherokee and Creek tribes as well as French and Dutch.
““I come from humble beginnings. My parents…we were poor at one time,” Spencer said. I grew up on a reservation, so I’ve seen poverty first hand.”
Spencer attended college at Lewis and Clark State for one semester before dropping out and heading for New York City.
“I wasn’t ready for school and I just felt in my gut that I needed to go to New York.I had to go to New York City. My parents took it with a grain of salt. They were very supportive of me. But I think they were really surprised when I actually lined up my first gig,” Spencer said. “They were like, well, who knew?”
For 10 years, Spencer auditioned and waited tables, auditioned and took acting classes with well-known acting teachers like David Gideon, auditioned and did theatre and auditioned some more.
“I bumped around New York for a while. I was an extra. I did a lot of theatre, sometimes not even getting paid. I was at the Public Theatre for a long time. It was definitely a learning process. Sometimes I got beaten out for major roles by a name. But I just kept auditioning and I stuck with it. That’s the biggest thing; perseverance,” Spencer said. “There’ve been ups and downs for me. I’ve been broke and didn’t have a gig lined up. You just keep trudging through. To achieve what you want in life, in what ever field you choose, you have to work. You have to put a lot of time and discipline into it. Nothing’s given to you.”
Spencer’s first off-Broadway performance was as “Dracula.” Later, Rene Haynes saw Spencer and cast him not only in his first feature film “Skins,” but in many more films including Steven Spielberg’s “Into the West,” “New Moon” and “Eclipse.” Spencer quickly discovered that although celebrity was something that came with the job, it didn’t appeal to him.
“By all rights, I really shouldn’t be here. It’s the whole thing about acting. It’s so much luck. All I really did was put one foot forward. The creator, the universe, something got me here. So I try to give back as much as I can,” Spencer said. “I don’t want to be one of those actors in the spotlight. Doing all the movie star bs, that’s not me. That’s not what I’m about. I’m very grateful for where I am now. In this way, I can use it for good.”
His friend and manager, Josselyne Herman, turned Spencer on to the organization United Global Shift, which led to Spencer creating the “Shift the Power to the People” campaign.
“We started getting organized and building the platform and infrastructure for Shift. Then, we started doing the campaign “Shift the power to the people,” Spencer said. “I want people to help make change. Look I’m not out there trying to change the world. I just want people to make the shift in their heads to give back and to help out.”
Spencer is now using “Shift the Power to the People” to make people aware of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe’s dire circumstances.
“The thing is the Cheyenne River Sioux aren’t asking the government to give them anything. This is something they were already given by treaty in the 1850s’. They don’t want donations. They want our government system to work for them,” Spencer said. “I’m asking for letters, calls and emails from people to their Congressmen and Senators telling them to stand for the US government fulfillment of a promise made generations ago to my people to build this water infrastructure for them.”
Spencer said when he first heard about the situation of the Cheyenne River Sioux, he was not only shocked but angry.
“I could not believe that I hadn’t heard anything about this. I was so angry. I talked to Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Chairman Joseph Brings Plenty, who told me how the loss of electricity had knocked out the Reservation’s water system back in January. There was no running water on the entire Reservation and that it also affected many off reservation communities whose water was supplied from pipes running through the Reservation,” Spencer said. “Joseph was so happy that this conversation was happening because no one’s been listening to them. This is so low under the radar, it’s almost like Katrina. There are people that are still there, just making do. It’s so bad but I’m just trying to be cool, you know. I’m really trying to stay cool.”
According to Spencer, the estimated cost to replace the Cheyenne River Sioux’ water infrastructure is 4.1 million dollars. But it’s not just about replacing the pipes.
“In order to have a town, in order to have a life there, they need their water rights. They need a water infrastructure just so they can attend to basic human needs,” Spencer said. “Getting water could reduce the unemployment there by creating jobs. I’ve lived on several reservations. Drugs and alcohol are a huge, huge problem there, partly because unemployment is so widespread. In fact, unemployment is 86% on the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation.”
With Shift the Power to the People, his friends and colleagues, Spencer put together a public service announcement and posted it on his Facebook page in February. Spencer hopes his fans and followers will come forward and support him by making the necessary calls and sending emails and letters to help the Cheyenne River Sioux get their water.
“I know a lot of people follow me because of Twilight and if I can get some awareness and action from all the fans out there, that’s what I want,” Spencer said. “Just go to my website, www.chaskespencer.com and follow the directions. Click on “Letter to your congressman.” It takes seconds and that’s all you have to do. It’s simple and easy.”
“Within an hour after posting the PSA, we got 600 letters and it keeps climbing, so things are happening,” Spencer said. “But I need people to write to their Congressman. We’ve got people at United Global Shift that are writing letters and making calls to people in government right now, but I need a lot of help.”
Spencer recently formed Urban Dream, a production company, with his manager as well as veteran producer Ted Kurdyla. Urban Dream is filmmaking that makes a difference, either by working to reduce poverty or by creating sustainable communities. The company is in development on a feature length documentary as well as a feature film. In the future, Spencer would like to see a film made about one of his favorite characters, Crazy Horse.
“Crazy Horse was a warrior and a vision quester. But he was also just a man who was put into extreme circumstances and did the best he could for his people. I used to love hearing stories about him that the elders passed down as oral legends. They were captivating, I liked the human side of him plus I’m Lakota (Sioux),” Spencer said. “There are many bands of Sioux. But at the end of the day, I’m a Sioux and Crazy Horse was a Sioux.”
There’s future talk that Spencer might relocate to Los Angeles.
“Eventually, I’ll make it out to LA. I’ve been trying to make that move but I’m a New Yorker at heart, I’ve lived here for 12 years,” Spencer said. “I love the vibe. I love the fact that I can go out on the street; I can walk anywhere I want to. I love that New York creative vibe too. I mean LA’s great, but this is where I am.”
At the end of the day, Chaske Spencer also, is just a man trying to do the best he can for himself and his people.
“You know, I’m surprised I made it this far,” Spencer laughed. “I just do the best I can and when I achieve something, I try to give something back. That’s what it’s all about. Someone out there gave back to you and that helped you get to where you need to be. No one ever gets there by themselves,” Spencer said. “I don’t care who the hell they are. No one ever gets there alone. Someone’s always helping someone out. That’s just the way it is.”
For more details on Chaske Spencer, go to www.chaskespencer.com. To take action to help the Sioux nation get their water infrastructure funded, go to www.shiftthepowertothepeople.org. To learn more about the Sioux nation, go to www.sioux.org.