How one of America’s oldest languages landed in Denzel Washington’s latest film

Vincent D'Onofrio, Martin Sensmeier, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Ethan Hawke, Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Byung-hun Lee, left to right, star in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures and Columbia Pictures' “The Magnificent Seven.” Native Americans praised the film's inclusion of a Native actor, Sensmeier, playing a Native character and speaking a Native language – a rarity in Hollywood.
Vincent D'Onofrio, Martin Sensmeier, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Ethan Hawke, Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Byung-hun Lee, left to right, star in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures and Columbia Pictures' “The Magnificent Seven.” Native Americans praised the film's inclusion of a Native actor, Sensmeier, playing a Native character and speaking a Native language – a rarity in Hollywood. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment

Johnny Poolaw took his 10-year-old niece to see “The Magnificent Seven” this month because he wanted to show her a strong Comanche character in a movie that opened No. 1 at the box office.

Nestled in their seats at a historic theater in the heart of Oklahoma’s Indian Country, Poolaw and his niece eagerly awaited the appearance of Red Harvest, played by Native American actor Martin Sensmeier. But the real surprise came when Sensmeier and Denzel Washington’s character exchanged words: They spoke flawlessly in the Comanche language. A collective gasp came from the mostly Native audience.

“It was like, ‘Oh my God, they’re speaking Comanche!’ ” said Poolaw, vice president of student and academic affairs at Comanche Nation College. “This is a Native person playing a Native character speaking a Native language.”

The rarity of a moment like that in a big-budget movie is hard to overstate, said Poolaw and other Native Americans who praise Antoine Fuqua, the director who remade the classic 1960 Western, for his attention to authenticity. To them, the few minutes of Comanche spoken in “The Magnificent Seven” signal two important developments: long-overdue improvement in how Hollywood portrays Native Americans and the payoff of intensive efforts to preserve America’s first languages.

Comanches have fought hard to save theirs, helped by outside grant money that the tribe’s language preservation committee used to expand classes, hold a language festival and offer enrolled members free dictionaries and tutorial DVDs. Still, the United Nations’ cultural heritage agency considers Comanche “severely endangered,” with only about 100 speakers. It’s among roughly 150 indigenous languages the U.S. Census Bureau counts as still in existence – a figure that academics warn could dwindle to fewer than two dozen by 2050, a legacy of the government’s former forced-schooling campaign that banned Native languages.

That ugly history is why so many Native Americans got a thrill from hearing Comanche alive and onscreen – spoken not only by Sensmeier, an Alaska Native in his breakout role, but by Oscar winner Washington, who leads “The Magnificent Seven.”

To accomplish those few moments, the producers turned to Oklahoma-born artist and film consultant Jhane Myers, a Comanche who’s previously worked as a consultant with Johnny Depp on “The Lone Ranger” and Mel Gibson on “Apocalypto,” in addition to documentary projects. Forrest Goodluck, the young Native actor who appeared in last year’s Leonardo Dicaprio film “The Revenant,” is a graduate of a film camp Myers runs in New Mexico, where she’s based.

In a phone interview from Santa Fe, Myers said her top priority was ensuring the authenticity of Comanche parts of the script, tweaking it to omit words that sounded wrong and then reading the lines to elders to check the translations. She sent the actors voice recordings she had made on her smartphone so they could practice their pronunciation. On set, she found herself face-to-face with Washington, rehearsing the lines with him and laughing when he joked that he was a “black Indian.”

Myers kept her involvement secret from the wider Comanche community, partly out of a custom against bragging and partly because she wanted moviegoers to experience the surprise that Poolaw and his niece got at the theater in Carnegie, Oklahoma.

“I didn’t tell anyone because I wanted people to go to the movies and hear Denzel speaking Comanche and be blown away,” Myers said. “If I don’t ever do another thing in film, I know that I did this thing and I did it right.”

Westerns traditionally have peddled the worst of “noble savage” stereotypes, but the Red Harvest character sets “The Magnificent Seven” apart in the genre. In Native forums on social media, indigenous people from across the country parsed every detail of the role and swooned over Sensmeier’s striking looks. Hundreds of approving comments follow the actor’s posts on Instagram and Twitter.

The one thing that’s off about Sensmeier’s Comanche portrayal is his hair, which was long when he first showed up on set but ended up cropped in the movie. Myers explained that it was because he had rushed home to Alaska during filming due to a death in the family and returned with his head shaven in accordance with tribal mourning customs. The producers were forced to improvise.

“Our history has been mistold and romanticized because we weren’t ready for the opportunity or we weren’t even asked,” Myers said. “But we are ready now. And now we’re being asked.”

Poolaw said he was proud to show his niece a Native hero on the big screen. He said there were so few good roles when he was growing up that the 1989 miniseries “Lonesome Dove,” based on the novel by Larry McMurtry and featuring Comanche characters, was a major event in Indian Country. For four nights, he recalled, families sat rapt before their televisions – he likened it to the collective viewing experience of African-Americans who watched “Roots” in 1977.

Now, Poolaw said, roles are getting even better. For one thing, they’re increasingly played by Natives themselves rather than white or Latino actors. And in films set in the so-called Wild West days, historical accuracy has improved, with more nuance about why indigenous tribes fought to protect their lands and people from the newly arrived Europeans.

The week before he watched “The Magnificent Seven,” Poolaw said, he learned in a Comanche history class about the fearsome reputation of the Comanches.

“They were ‘lords of the plains’ and they had that title because they fought everybody and had control of the land. They were pretty tough, rugged warriors, and other tribes feared us,” Poolaw said. “When I saw the character in the movie, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s who we were and what we were like.’ ”

Wallace Coffey, the six-term chairman of the Comanche Nation who stepped down earlier this year, named several Hollywood filmmakers who’ve traveled to Oklahoma seeking help with historical records or language. He said he was glad Hollywood types were finally interested in getting the portrayals right, and that Comanche language initiatives had paid off enough to help.

While he’d prefer Native Americans to write and direct their own stories, Coffey said, it’s undeniably exciting to have movie stars embrace the culture in respectful ways, as was the case with Depp, who spoke a couple of lines in Comanche in “The Lone Ranger.” Coffey said Depp visited Oklahoma multiple times and addressed him as “ah-tah,” Comanche for “uncle.”

“When he came to the Comanche Fair to ride in the parade he said, ‘Ah-tah, will you not advertise it?’ I said, ‘Word of mouth?’ He said, ‘Word of mouth.’ Still, we had 17,000 people show up – most of them women,” Coffey recalled with a chuckle.

Last week was the 2016 Comanche Fair, a three-day gathering where powwow dancers competed to the beats of a Grammy-winning drum group, craftspeople sold silver and brightly patterned blankets, teenagers sported trendy T-shirts emblazoned with “Indigenous” and children rode carnival rides.

The film industry was there, too, in the background. “The Magnificent Seven” had just opened and people spoke excitedly of the Comanche parts. Myers, the consultant, rode a horse in the parade. She was there with a PBS crew working on a program about indigenous America. The Canadian Native actor Adam Beach, who plays Slipknot in “Suicide Squad,” also made an appearance, swarmed by young fans asking for selfies.

Beach briefly took the microphone to extend greetings in his tribal language and to praise the Comanche Nation for its own preservation effort, which was evident when the young princess candidates stepped forward in their beaded regalia and introduced themselves in Comanche.

Martin Flores Weryackwe, who’s taught Comanche for 10 years, saw “The Magnificent Seven” recently and, like his friends, was overjoyed to hear their language in a hit movie. But even more powerful, he said, was listening to the girls at the fair.

“It touched my heart,” Weryackwe said. “I know that when I go away, it’s still going to be here. I know that somewhere our language is going to make it, to survive. It might not be fluent, but parts will survive.”

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Hannah Allam: 202-383-6186, @HannahAllam