By Brady Rhoades
It seems like everyone is talking about “Yellowstone,” Paramount Network’s hit series.
John Dutton. Beth. Kaycee. Rip Wheeler. And Chief Thomas Rainwater, played by renowned actor Gil Birmingham.
It’s the role of a lifetime. And an important one.
“I couldn’t be happier that there’s a Native American that’s portrayed in an educated and powerful way.
That’s more realistic of what our community does have to offer,” Birmingham has stated.
Birmingham said there are more opportunities than ever for Native-Americans to play genuine, complex characters, and that Hollywood is doing a much better job of avoiding stereotypes. What is particularly intriguing about playing Rainwater, he said, is that the chief of a reservation near the Dutton ranch in Montana is a contemporary character. “Yellowstone” is not a period piece.
Birmingham said the show’s creator, Taylor Sheridan, deserves plenty of credit. “I knew Taylor would have a sensitivity with the Native world because he had a lot of interaction with them in his younger life,” he said.
A Body of Talent
Gil Birmingham, of Comanche ancestry, was born in San Antonio, Texas. His family moved frequently during his childhood because of his father’s career in the military. He learned to play the guitar at an early age and considers music his first love.
After obtaining a bachelor of science degree from the University of Southern California, he worked as a petrochemical engineer. He knew that wasn’t what he wanted to do long-term; in fact, he was pursuing a side-career in bodybuilding.
That’s how he was discovered. A talent scout pegged him for a Diana Ross music video. The Motown icon had hit the charts once again, this time with “Muscles.”
Next was a gig at Universal Studios, where he played Conan on the theme park’s newest attraction: “The Adventures of Conan: A Sword and Sorcery Spectacular.”
Birmingham made his television debut on an episode of the series “Riptide.” By 2002, he had a recurring role as the character Oz in the medical drama “Body & Soul,” starring Peter Strauss. In 2005, he was cast as the older Dogstar in the Steven Spielberg six-part miniseries “Into the West.”
He has appeared in a number of television series, including “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Veronica Mars,” “10 Items or Less,” “Nip/Tuck,” “Castle,” “The Mentalist,” “House of Cards” and the “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” He has also had roles in several television films.
In 2008, Birmingham landed the role of Billy Black in “The Twilight Saga” film series. It’s what he was most famous for before “Yellowstone.” Now, the two might be neck-and-neck.
“Yellowstone,” which is set to start its fourth season in the fall, centers on the Dutton family, most notably, no-nonsense patriarch John Dutton (Kevin Costner). The sixth-generation homesteader and devoted father must juggle running the largest contiguous ranch in the United States and dealing with a family full of problems. Land developers, an energy company and a tribal reservation have eyes on a massive swath of Dutton’s land.
Birmingham’s Thomas Rainwater is a complicated man. He was not raised on a reservation and believed he was of Mexican descent until he was 18 and saw his adoption papers. That was, obviously, pivotal for him. He earned a master of businesses administration from Harvard. He is now chairman of the Confederate Tribes of Broken Rock. He is usually the smartest guy in the room.
And he wants Dutton’s land or, as he bluntly states in the show, he wants to take back what rightfully belongs to the tribes, meaning he wants to expand the Broken Rock Reservation and keep outsiders as far away as possible.
His relationship with Costner’s John Dutton makes for must-watch TV. On one hand, the two have little in common. Rainwater is Native American. Dutton is White. Rainwater and his tribes have, over the centuries, been robbed of land, resources, wealth.
Dutton is a product of generational wealth and, yes, hard work too.
On the other hand, they’re both shrewd, true to their causes, even respectful. And they’re both unflappable; it’s hard to know what they’re going to do until they do it.
“I think Taylor so brilliantly established a character that’s empowered with education, and a means by which he can operate within the guidelines of a system that’s been structured, and empowered that character, to be able to operate and reclaim the resources that have belonged to him for centuries,” Birmingham said.
It takes a great actor to play a worthy foe of the legendary Costner, but Birmingham is pulling it off.
Here are two of his more memorable statements to John Dutton, astensions between the two rise:
— “Nothing we say here is going to change our goals. Our paths will always collide. We fight. One of us will win. But you’ve been a good enemy, John. A fair enemy”;
— “I will erase you from the future… see, I’m the opposite of progress, John. I’m the past catching up to you.”
“Yellowstone’s” Facebook page has a thread that starts with the question, “What is your favorite Thomas Rainwater moment from Season 3?
Wrote Dianne Montgomery Hocut: “I’ve enjoyed watching Thomas Rainwater scene where he is in full ceremonial headgear and dress. He has achieved honor, wisdom and power of many. Just fits him!”
Birmingham, who recently turned 68, continues to be a steadfast advocate of Native American rights. In a case, perhaps, of life imitating art, on June 25 he retweeted the Lakota Law Project (@lakotalaw): “The U.S. Department of Interior announced Wednesday the restoration of more than 18,800 acres of land, known as the National Bison Range, so it can be returned to Indigenous tribes in Montana.”
Native Americans in Hollywood and Native Americans in society have come a long way.
Birmingham mirrors that progress. No longer is he relegated to period-piece, revisionist roles. He has become one of the most authentic and powerful Native American voices on television, which he uses as a launchpad for his activism.
“I feel a responsibility to represent a Native character who has that strength and determination,” he told IndianCountryToday.com, “that all of our ancestors, that survived what they have survived, and then to put in the context of a contemporary piece with that soul to come to it, and based on trying to do everything that he can for his people, for his rez.”