'Apocalypto' actor's ancestry questioned

Times Staff Writer

When Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto" premiered last December, the action-filled film set against the backdrop of the Maya empire launched the career of a young Texan named Rudy Youngblood.

In interviews plugging the movie, Youngblood, who plays the film's central character, Jaguar Paw, routinely discussed his Indian ancestry and his connections to three American tribes. He told one interviewer: "I also have ancestors who fought at Wounded Knee and Little Big Horn, so it's not hard to use my Native American heritage for this role."

But just as the 25-year-old actor climbs the ladder of Hollywood stardom, a Comanche conservative pundit is roiling the Native American community by raising questions about Youngblood's ancestry, sparking a raging debate on various American Indian websites. The issue strikes a sensitive chord as well in Hollywood, where today's movie industry can expect to come under fire for casting non-minorities in minority roles.

So far, the questions over Youngblood's ancestry haven't been enough to derail plans by First Americans in the Arts, a nonprofit group that honors Native American accomplishments in entertainment, to award him its outstanding new lead actor award at its Beverly Hills soiree on April 14, but David A. Yeagley is not giving up.

"He has no Indian blood in him that anyone can validate," Yeagley said. "[Comanche] officials got scooped up in the thrill of claiming a movie star."

For his part, Youngblood said he can't understand why Yeagley has it in for him.

"It's very hateful and very negative," Youngblood said in a recent phone interview. "He stalks me like he knows me. He's never met me."

Michelle R. Shining Elk, the actor's manager and publicist, calls Yeagley's allegations "off the wall" and in turn accuses Yeagley of falsifying his own background.

Burgeoning career

The controversy comes at a time when Youngblood is being courted by several producers. The actor has received "numerous" scripts and is currently in negotiations on a project, which Shining Elk would not identify except to say it would be even more physically demanding than his grueling role as a man on the run in "Apocalypto."

Youngblood, who earned acclaim for his work in the action-adventure movie, is represented by Gibson's agent Ed Limato and Jim Osborne at International Creative Management. For his part, Youngblood said, "I don't want the rest of my career to be pursuing Native American roles; I want to be challenged as an actor."

The debate over Youngblood's ancestry highlights the complexity involved when determining what it means to be Native American.

Youngblood's personal website states: "Rudy is from the Tahchawwickah Comanche family, his father is the late Preston Tahchawwickah. He is adopted Cree.... Like many Native people, Rudy is an integral part of several Indian families throughout the United States -- he is honored to be a part of each of them."

Jolene Schonchin, a spokeswoman for the Comanche Nation in Lawton, Okla., said Youngblood "is not on our tribal rolls, but he does have Comanche blood. His blood comes from his paternal side. His father was a full-blooded Comanche and a prominent member of the Comanche tribe, Preston Tahchawwickah."

That claim doesn't sit well with some members of the Tahchawwickah family.

"I never heard of this guy until this movie came out," said Rodney Tahchawwickah of Cache, Okla., who noted that Youngblood didn't show up at Preston Tahchawwickah's funeral two years ago.

Dawn Tahchawwickah of Dallas, Preston's daughter and Rodney's half-sister, described Youngblood as "only a family friend," adding, "He is nothing to my father."

However, another of Preston's children, Lance Tahchawwickah, has come out publicly in support of Youngblood, calling him "my brother."

Youngblood told The Times that Preston Tahchawwickah was not his biological father but his ceremonially adoptive father. Regardless, Youngblood said, "I am Comanche. I'm not going to go into names. My tribe knows it. That is all that needs to be said."

Youngblood said his biological mother is Comanche and his biological father is Yaqui, but he declined to identify them further, citing concerns for their privacy.

When contacted by phone, a woman in Belton, Texas, who identified herself as Youngblood's mother said that she is Comanche and that she finds the debate over her son's heritage "hilarious."

The actor said he has used the name "Youngblood" -- a family name that he said comes from an uncle -- since he was 6. He said he has also used the name Rudy Gonzales, which he said was his stepfather's name.

Youngblood's defenders have blasted Yeagley and question his motives.

"The bottom line is, we don't need to explain anything to him," said Shining Elk. "Rudy is just his current target."

Heritage dispute

Meanwhile, Yeagley's own American Indian heritage has been questioned by his critics. The website DavidYeagley.org, a forum for anti-Yeagley commentary, claims Yeagley had a Comanche stepmother and "was never raised in Comanche ways and was never taught them."

The Oklahoma-based Yeagley scoffed at the allegations. "Their only defense is to discredit me, saying that I am not an Indian." He said his mother was a Comanche with some Chickasaw, and his father was part German and part English.

Yeagley, whose attacks on Youngblood can be found at his website BadEagle.com, has infuriated many Indians with his endorsement of Columbus Day parades and the use of Indian mascots on campuses, something that many Native Americans find offensive. Yeagley's critics often vent against him on BadEagle.org, whose similar-sounding Web address is intended to lure surfers away from Yeagley's site.

Donna Talamantes, a trustee of the First Americans in the Arts group, said they have received e-mails and letters from Yeagley and his supporters protesting the group's plan to honor Youngblood at next month's Beverly Hills banquet.

But she says they have no plans to cancel the award.

"We went back and forth, and we believe him to be who he says he is," she said. "We've talked to family members and community members who will vouch for him."

Talamantes lamented that the flap has ensnared a promising young actor. "The sad thing is that as Native Americans, we are the only people in the country who have to prove who we are as native peoples."

robert.welkos@latimes.com

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