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An Actor True to His Make-Up
by Paula Zalar (American Indian Review, Issue 13, 1997)

Watching the recently released video, "Wild Bill", you have no doubt about it: the man in feathers with a layer of white paint on his face in an Indian. But Pato Hoffmann--the actor wearing the make-up--knows not everyone would agree. "The single, most consistent obstacle I've faced," says the forty year old Bolivian, "has been the discrimination set against me by those believing only North American Indians qualify as 'Native Americans.'" Proud of his Quechua (Inca) and Aymara Indian heritage, Hoffmann finds such narrow definition of "Indian" insulting and illogical. "There are two other Americas, Central and South. Both are home to indigenous people."

Who is an Indian and who has the right to portray one are long-standing questions in social and cultural circles. As the controversy continues, Pato Hoffmann auditions around it--successfully, too. Working steadily, he's appeared in Columbia's production of "Geronimo", in "Raven Hawk", and "Cheyenne Warrior". He had a starring role in TNT's "Lakota Woman", and contributed the voice of an elder in HBO's animated Native American version of "Snow White". He's had recurring roles in the TV series "Legend", and will reappear in this year's new episodes of "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman". Recently, he appeared with an all-Native cast in "The Secret of the Lizard Woman", a special for ABC. He looks forward to up-coming roles.

It's uncertain work, acting; but sometimes the right role brings another. Impressed by Hoffmann's portrayal of the medicine man slain in "Geronimo", director Walter Hill offered the actor a port in his picture, "Wild Bill". "By this time," says Hoffmann, a college graduate with a degree in economics, "I'd done enough things to feel more confident about acting."

Still, the role came as a challenge: he had to speak fluent Cheyenne. Usually, languages come easily for Hoffmann. He speaks impeccable English and works as a translator in Spanish and Portuguese. He learned Sioux and Apache for previous films, but the Cheyenne language required more study. "Being a native actor," explains Hoffmann, "I have particular responsibilities. Since I'm always concerned with showing proper respect for the people Iím playing, I was anxious about learning Cheyenne well enough to speak it correctly. I had a Cheyenne elder on the set who was teaching me."

Hoffmann feels it was because he was working in another language that he was able to be so focused on his part in the scene. Lost in the process, the rest of the "work" escaped him. "I mean, I forgot about the acting. I was just there, feeling more than acting Cheyenne. It was all very rewarding, the process."

Pato Hoffmann appreciates "process". For the last 12 years he's studied Kung Fu with a Chinese master. He's now expert with the staff and with "bay daggers", double-edged knives. "Kung Fu has taught me discipline, focus, and patience. Iím always aware of my environment now, and I look more--I see more--when I move."

For Hoffmann, traditional martial arts native ways aren't just compatible, they're similar; both bring continual opportunities for self-improvement. "Neither is something I practice just while Iím in class, or in a ceremony. As part of my daily life both strengthen me. Both make up and reflect who I am."

And he's certain of who he is though others may doubt. Proud of his heritage, he voices his ancestors' thought. "There was a time among traditional peoples when everyone agreed there are only two kinds of human beings--decent, and indecent. When you allied yourself with the people, when you were for the people and walked as the people did, then--to everyone--you were one of the people. Loyal to the ways, you were Indian."

Hoffmann thinks self-appointed culture guards have forced a sad change in this view. "Unfortunately, some have made up new rules. It's not just if you have Indian blood that matters; now it's how much and whose you carry." To Hoffmann, these new definitions offer no guarantee.

"I see it all the time--'I'm a full-bloodÖ' says so-and-so. But he knows nothing of the people, he gives nothing. He talks like an Indian, maybe, but does he walk like one? Does he follow the ways?"

To Pato Hoffmann it's all on-going, and cumulative. "As an actor and a person, I can only bring to a role the me, the sum total of my life experiences, that nobody else can bring. Iím a bilingual, cross-cultural mixed-blood, a native of South America who's part Indian, part German, part Spanish. I've had the privilege of education and experiences through travel, and contact with diverse groups of people. I've tried to learn and assimilate from all this what is good and make it a part of my daily living. In terms of identity, I'm striving to be a good person, a good actor. I know I'm already Indian."

Following paths he's known since a child, Pato Hoffmann walks confidently around his detractors. "Do you know how tied I get of defending my Indian heritage to those who keep challenging it?" Still, the journey brings heart, gives satisfaction. "I travel all over in this business. I'm always meeting native elders, other traditionals. Those who have talked with me know me and see who I am. Wherever I go," he says, smiling, "I'm invited back again."

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