More Than Acting—Raymond Tracey As Himself


“It is my own life story because it really is a portrayal of me. I faced the same problems in my life,” said Raymond Tracey, a young Navaho Latter-day Saint from Ganada, Arizona, and star of a new motion picture, Indian.

Tracey (most of his friends call him by his last name) portrays a young Navaho who lived on a reservation with his grandparents until he was old enough to be taken out of his Indian world and educated in the white man’s world. After high school his life is at a crossroads. He was born an Indian, has the blood and looks of an Indian, and yet doesn’t feel like an Indian.

He wonders whether he should stay in the world that he has become used to, or if he should go back to the reservation and try to become an Indian once again. He gets in his jeep and begins a journey to talk to other Indians before he can decide who he is and where he belongs. He works hard to discover what being Indian really means.

Tracey has a natural feel for the character in the film. He could understand many of his concerns and confusion because he left his own home and parents when he was ten to live with another family and attend school on the Church’s Indian placement program.

“I had some ideas about the two very different worlds of the main character in the film,” said Brother Kieth Merrill, producer-director of Indian. “As we shot footage of Tracey each day, new insights and feelings would keep presenting themselves. Finally we reached a point where it was hard to tell where the story line I was carrying around in my head stopped and the story of Tracey’s own life began. The plot of Tracey’s life was so strong and universal that it merged with the story line of the film.”

The film portrays specific experiences that differ from those that actually happened to Tracey, but most of the emotional conflicts and discoveries are identical to those he experienced while he was growing up.

Before the main character in the film leaves the reservation for school, his grandfather tells him, “Always remember, my son, that you are an Indian. Don’t forget it. Gain an education, but be proud of your Indian heritage at the same time.”

Tracey’s parents felt the same way about sending him on placement. “My parents always wanted the best for me,” he said. “I didn’t know we were poor when I was small, but now I know it. We lived in a one-room house with a dirt floor. I didn’t see my father very often because he would leave for work at five in the morning. He had to hitchhike into town and then go to work driving a logging truck all day. He came home at night after I was in bed.” His father did this summer and winter. Both parents hoped and planned and worked, and taught their children.

“They planted some important ideas deep inside our minds while we were very young.”

They taught Tracey and his brothers and sisters the gospel and English while they were small children. Tracey went to kindergarten speaking English when most of his friends spoke only Navaho. He also learned that he was special in the sight of his Father in heaven. It was easier for him to adjust to placement because of this background.

“The gospel has always been a force in my life. In addition I never had to think in Navaho and then translate it into English. I grew up thinking in English, and that is an asset. I was called on a mission to my people before I learned to speak Navaho and think the way Navahos think.”

Leaving home and family was hard for young Tracey, but he adjusted well.

“Once I got over seeing everyone as either a brown skin or a white skin, I really got a lot out of placement. I wasn’t treated as a foreigner. All my brothers and sisters and my new mom and dad made me welcome. But I was no guest to be pampered. I was a total part of the family. I had to take out the trash, wash dishes three times a week, and carry my own part of the responsibilities just like everyone else.”

Tracey’s participation in sports helped his natural shyness to fade and gave him confidence in all of his abilities. “Without confidence I would never have been able to perform in front of a camera and crew, with a hundred people on the set watching me,” he said.

His increasing knowledge of the gospel also gave him confidence.

“My foster parents taught me the value of a really good, stable family life. I grew up with good families. We had family prayer, family home evening, and we went to church together. These are all examples I hope to follow with my own family,” he said.

In the film Tracey travels across America talking to other Indians. He asks, “What is an Indian? What does he do? How does he think?” And, of course, each person he talks to gives a different answer. He met and talked to many interesting people. This is exciting to him because it has given him a chance to help accurately portray Lamanites and give them some identity and credit.

“They deserve a better image of themselves than what they have seen in the movies. I’ve grown up seeing my people portrayed only as scalping savages.

“While I was still living in Arizona, we would get to see movies in elementary school. There were a lot of cowboy, cavalry, and Indian films shown. Indians would invariably sweep around the bend and wipe out a whole wagon train. They were savages. Then the cavalry would dash after the Indians, and that whole theater of Indian kids would shout and cheer for the cavalry. No kid wants to identify with the bad guy, and yet we never saw a film where Indians were any good. I was always a cowboy when we played cowboys and Indians. Cowboys rode white horses, carried shiny guns, and always won. Indians weren’t smart enough to win,” Tracey said.

Yet deep inside himself Tracey knew he could win. His parents had taught him that winning depends on the individual. They had taught him that if you want to win, you can win. “Feeling inferior is terrible, and I felt it quite often during junior high school,” he said.

By the time he got into high school, however, Tracey knew he was breaking out of his inferiority feelings. He ran cross-country for the track team, and he was elected student body vice-president.

“By then I felt great,” he said. “I remembered the teachings of my own parents. I knew I had a Father in heaven who loved me and that in his eyes I was just as good as anyone else. I knew I would be judged on my own abilities and what I was able to do with them.

“Now, through the medium of film, I can help other Indians gain a realization of these same true principles.”

Tracey also feels that many of his childhood teachings would be beneficial for all men to know. When he was young, he learned to notice the order and balance of nature. “My father had me look at a bee, and he would say, ‘Look at that little stinger and how it comes out. It can be used for two things, good or bad. If you hurt him or threaten him, he will sting you with the stinger. But if you let him alone, he’ll use that stinger to gather pollen and nectar from the flowers. And he’ll take it back to his home and make honey out of it. You have the knowledge to destroy him or to use him for your own benefit. He is your brother.’”

Tracey learned to respect every living thing. The trees, the animals that lived in them, and even the land they grew on were respected as if they were his brothers and sisters. Years before he heard the word ecology he had learned to look at the full cycle of nature. He knew the Navahos built hogans (wooden framed mounds covered with dirt) because they didn’t want to add to nor detract from the landscape. They just wanted to fit in and be a part of the land.

“At first,” he said, “Navahos didn’t even want windows in the hogans because when you look at one from a distance it should blend right in to the landscape. When a hogan has a window, it causes reflections that look unnatural and it draws attention to itself, and this isn’t pleasing to a Navaho.”

Tracey also explained that many young Indians are taught to run and exercise because they believe if your body is physically fit then your mind works better and there will be no room for dark thunderclouds in it. These kinds of teachings are also part of the gospel and he hopes to be able to give them to his children.

“When my son is out in nature and he notices something beautiful, I want him to feel like I do about it. He will stop and look and appreciate and give thanks, and he’ll know it couldn’t have happened by chance. And wherever he walks, he will leave beauty behind him and see beauty before him.”

At the end of the film, Tracey, after traveling coast to coast, talking and probing his identity with other Indians, finally comes home. By this time his grandfather has died, and so he goes to the grave and reports.

“Grandfather, I’ve done what you wanted me to do. I’ve been to the white man’s school. I got my education, and yet I’ve never forgotten that I am an Indian with a heritage that I am proud of. I met a boxer who is an Indian. I met a journalist who is an Indian. I’ve met politicians who are Indians. I met all kinds of people who are Indians, and now I know what it is to be an Indian. Grandfather, what I want to be is myself. To be me. To be whatever I want to be. I want to take what you have planted in my heart and give it to someone else. I want to take my education and give it back to my people.”

Tracey lived these moments for the cameras. Yet to him it was more than acting because he had made the same discoveries once before.

“A time came,” he said, “when I didn’t think of myself as an Indian and my foster family as being white. We were all treated the same, and I just thought of myself as me. This was reinforced as my testimony became stronger. I began to realize that part of being me meant that I was also a son of God. I knew the Church was true during my first year of college. At the same time I wanted to go on a mission. I was really integrated. I was an Indian with a different cultural background, and I knew the technology of the white man. But I had also learned to communicate with my Father in heaven. I knew he loved me. He helped me discover that I am a son of God, and that is my true culture as it should be for all Latter-day Saints.

“It was easier then to say, ‘These white-man teachings fit here, those Indian teachings fit there.’ And I understood what I should throw away in both cultures because the gospel became the real living force in my life. It brought the two pads of my past together and gave my life true meaning.”

Since he finished Indian, Tracey has starred in another motion picture called Joe Panther, which tells the story of a young Seminole Indian seeking his place in modern society.

Although his acting career is just starting, Tracey is already receiving praise for his ability. He is also drawing attention to his way of life. Wherever he has worked, he has influenced other members of the casts and crews. On one occasion a cast member told him, “Everybody on this set is searching for what you already have.” A cast member of Joe Panther wouldn’t even drink coffee when Tracey was on the set. “I’ve taken up drinking orange juice because that is what you drink,” he said.

Ray Tracey and Caroline Wuneka, from Crystal, New Mexico, were married in the Salt Lake Temple just before filming began on Joe Panther. Since this film was shot in the Everglades, they enjoyed a nice Florida honeymoon.

Tracey hopes to do more acting in movies. However, he stressed, “I’m not going to do any movie that will discredit my race or my church, or in any way make people ashamed of me.” Tracey hopes he can be an example for other young people. He is working to accomplish the tasks spelled out for him in his patriarchal blessing.

“I hope to be an instrument in the hands of the Lord to bring the gospel to many of my people. I hope I can be worthy to do this, and right now it seems that part of the answer lies with the media. That is one way I can reach many of them,” he said.

Like the characters in his films, Tracey displays courage, perseverance, and sensitivity. He knows that life gives you an opportunity to overcome difficulties, and that by doing this you get stronger. Most of all, he knows that the gospel gives direction and meaning to everyone who will embrace it.

[photos] Photos by Dick Oliver and Brian Kelly

[photos] Tracey leaves home and journeys from state to state trying to find out who he is by talking to other Indians

[photo] He drives through the Idaho panhandle on his way to meet descendants of Chief Joseph, the great Nez Perce chief

[photo] In North Dakota Tracey tries on a Sioux war bonnet

[photo] In the film, Tracey is talked into riding a bull at the Crow Fair rodeo near Billings, Montana

[photo] Appaloosa horses were originally developed and are still raised by the Nez Perce Indians

[photo] Hieroglyphics at a place called Newspaper Rock near Monticello, Utah

[photo] Canyon de Chelly is part of the Navaho reservation in Arizona

[photo] A trained eagle in the film symbolizes the Indians’ love for freedom

[photo] Tracey went to Canyon de Chelly on the way back to his grandfather’s grave

[photo] Crew and cast wait out a rainstorm in a convenient cave near Calistoga, California

[photo] Parts of both movies were filmed in the Florida Everglades, but Tracey got to wrestle this big alligator in Joe Panther

[photo] On the old stagecoach road to Calistoga, California

[photo] Tracey, who is an experienced silversmith himself, appreciated the many different handicrafts he saw during the filming of Indian. These straws will be worked into intricately designed baskets

[photo] Visiting the Havasupai in the bottom of Grand Canyon was a good chance to swim in some of the grandest swimming holes on earth