Valerie Red-Horse has always written her own life script. In it, she’s played many roles: wife, mother, actress, director and CEO. Throughout it all, Red-Horse has managed to show the world who she is…and who she isn’t.
The lights come up on stage. We see two brothers ring a doorbell. A girl answers. The men chuckle when she appears.
“Jeez, she’s got the Red-Horse traits for sure,” one says, referring to her chestnut hair, her high cheek bones, her Cherokee skin.
The girl smiles.
Inside the frugal two-bedroom house in Fresno, Calif., lives the girl, her mom and her sister. She’d never met her half-brothers. Her mother tracked them down. The father they all shared wasn’t around when she was growing up.
But today, she’s meeting two of her brothers for the first time.
The door clicks shut, and the three siblings disappear inside.
. . .
If life were only that simple: End scene, move on, break for intermission. But for Valerie Red-Horse, her father’s neglect was just a beginning. The scene became a marker in a lifelong fight to prove who she was and who she was not. Mixed blood. Native. White. Poor. Rich. Ugly. Beautiful. Mother. Christian. Filmmaker. Actress. Activist. Entrepreneur. Red-Horse had her own storyline to create, and for most of that story she tried desperately not to be squashed under other people’s stage directions or critical reviews.
ACT I, Scene I
Fresno, California: 1968
When summer in Fresno sizzled, Red-Horse’s mother drenched bed sheets with water to hold the molten air at bay.
Most days, the stifling heat was a backdrop for afternoon adventures pumping down the street on two wheels.
Except for this one time.
On that day, the Armenian Evangelical Church was hosting a Vacation Bible School. But the 9-year-old saw suckers and balloons outside.
Furiously pedaling the rest of the way home, she begged to go. Mom finally gave it her blessing.
Sitting in a small annex of the church, on a gray folding chair, she listened to Pastor Sivis delivering The Word. Then it struck. What Red-Horse calls the most illogical moment of her life: The nerdy, award-winning, science-loving student stupefied by the power of a spiritual message. The sugar-coated dream faded out, and the spirit moved in.
Cheerleader, drama club president, student government, valedictorian, math team, forensic debate team, marching band, school newspaper editor and homecoming court. Her mark was all over McLane High School, and the yearbook photos proved it. Around 70 in all, Asheley Farmer said. She should know. The two have been pals since age 14.
“(She) didn’t do anything half-baked,” Farmer said.
Art can express who native people are and the obstacles and challenges that they face. Film in particular can explain a lot about who native people are. Stories can be told without stereotyping or romanticizing Native Americans that can criticize communities and situations in order to fix problems.
Still, she got teased and taunted a lot. Her campaign poster was defaced: “Vote for Valerie Red-Horse.” Her numerous awards bred jealously: Why her? Why not us?
After all, she had that weird last name. She hailed from a place filled with immigrants and field workers. She had a single mom making ends meet on a Social Security pension. And of course, she had that Cherokee skin.
University of California at Los Angeles: 1977
At cheerleading practice on the football sidelines, she saw him. She stopped cheering. Her heart began thrashing. Although only a college freshman, she still knew it: Bruins offensive lineman, Curt Mohl, would be her husband.
She was right, too.
But UCLA wasn’t about finding Mr. Right. It was more about jumpstarting her acting dreams.
The newlyweds’ apartment, Los Angeles: 1983
A pale, red-haired, freckle-faced man sealed her fate again. His dislike of her depiction of a Native woman cost her yet another acting gig. “You sound too educated to play a Native American woman,” he said.
Valerie Red-Horse started her career as an actress, but wasn’t satisfied with that. As she began to write and see her stories told, she began to realize who really controls the story. Eventually she became a director, who holds ultimate control over how the writing is translated into a film.
Enough. Casting directors wanted someone more Native. No, someone less Native.
She paced in their apartment, brooding and brooding.
“Val,” her husband finally said, “why don’t you just write for yourself? Cast yourself, start a production company.”
So before long, Red-Horse Native Productions, Inc., was off and running.
She’d been right about Mohl. The hulking lineman had transitioned from UCLA to the Oakland Raiders, from college boyfriend to husband. For almost 30 years, he’d been the love of her life. Her acting career didn’t work like she’d hoped. But he did.
Their three children are proof: Courtney, 24, Derek, 20, and Chelsea, 11.
And her other endeavors, mostly, turned out to be a good ideas, too. Accolades came and went: Best Live Action Short-American Indian Film Festival winner “Looks into the Night.” Director of the Hollywood Access Program for Natives. 1999 Cherokee Medal of Honor Awardee.
For a girl trying to prove to the world who she was or wasn’t, Valerie Red-Horse seemed to be doing pretty well.
ACT II, Scene I
Los Angeles, the family home: 4 a.m.
The sun has yet to filter through the windows of her Southern California home, but she’s already awake. It’s part of her routine.
It’s quiet time, to pray, to reflect, to make sense of the day. Which hat today? Mother? Financial adviser? Producer? Business owner? Better yet, how can each fit into her BlackBerry instead of a Mary Poppins bag?
Navajo Reservation, New Mexico: 1999-2001
“Ms. Red-Horse, we need to talk.”
The people she had spent the last year documenting had something to discuss. She’d been working on the story of the Navajo Code Talkers, men who’d created a secret code from their language for the U.S. Army.
However, the veterans feared she’d portray them in the wrong light. She was angry and bitter about their military service. They weren’t.
After all, the men who were yanked from boarding schools were asked to use the language that had been forbidden at school to help win World War II.
[j1]Are these two separate things? HAPN and Cherokee Medal of Honor? Or is it the HAPN’s Cherokee Medal of Honor?
[CD4]This is part of her daily routine. She’s done this for years. You could stick a year on there if it really bothers you, but I’d probably say 2009, which interfears with the next scene but does set up how much she works- so I’d keep it where it was to keep the flow of her work pace going.
Valerie Red-Horse tells the story of how her codetalkers documentary began. The former Navajo soldiers asked her to tell the real story. John Woo ended up making the feature film, while she made the documentary following the wishes of the Navajo people.
“They were invaluable,” Red-Horse said. “They go back to their reservations and are not given or granted or told about proper benefits and pensions.”
Inexcusable. But even though she was livid, the Navajo veterans had long since reconciled their feelings.
“What it showed me is that as a director, it’s not about me,” Red-Horse said. “This is about them. … From that point on, I’ve just such a different approach to everything I do.”
New York, New York: 2001
“Former Actress becomes a Key Link for Wall Street and the Reservation” blared a front-page headline in the Wall Street Journal. It was Sept. 6, less than a week before 9/11 and just days before the biggest scandal Red-Horse’s recently purchased Wall Street brokerage firm would face
Before Red-Horse took over, an employee bought an investment that was supposed to be a gain for the company. Instead it was a debt, which hurled the company into technical bankruptcy. Regulation-wise, the company was fine. But from the PR side, it was a nightmare.
The company, which had little credibility entering the market with the sharks of Wall Street, had already screwed up. Did Red-Horse, a woman, a Native woman, without a formal business background, know what she was doing?
The employee’s investment choice was a multimillion-dollar mistake. After 9/11, the loss of such a large sum made the Wall Street Journal opinion page: Accusations that Red-Horse had used the lost money to fund terrorists.
Phone calls every morning, more bad news, more business trips, more than half the next year spent away from home, more fighting with her husband.
Los Angeles, a hospital waiting room: 2007
Red-Horse is sprawled across hospital waiting room chairs, praying.
She endured the fallout of bad investments and preserved her marriage. But this she couldn’t control.
After her family returned from a weeklong Christian mission trip to the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, her son Derek complained of stomach pain.
It’s a bad hamburger, she thought, giving him a couple pain pills.
The pain didn’t stop. Derek’s appendix burst. At the hospital, he had a 50-50 chance of surviving the surgery.
With all she knew, none of it was medical. She knew she loved him. And she knew she couldn’t bear losing her son because she’d chalked it up to a bad hamburger.
Then the doctor entered the waiting room after a seven-hour surgery: Her son would survive.
Act III, Scene I
Mescalero Apache Tribe Inn, New Mexico: 2008
She’s on yet another business trip. This time she’s working with the Mescalero Apache Tribe. But tonight she’s at dinner with her husband.
Soon, a woman approaches the table. It’s Pam Cordova, the lone female tribal council member, someone Red-Horse had met earlier. Cordova has a gift, something to remember her by. It’s a pair of earrings shaped like circular dream catchers.
The two women had met to discuss tribal finances. However, Cordova says, their connection was deeper than a business interaction.
“Almost like … I was related to her and she was related to me. Not because we’re both Native, there’s a word for it … I felt like she was my sister.” Both Cordova and Red-Horse have worked for years as lone women surrounded by men, holding their own and standing up for themselves and their communities. Together, they found common ground.
Later Red-Horse thanked Cordova for her generosity with a gift of her own, another pair of earrings, her personal favorites, ones that were long and beaded.
The family’s living room: Aug. 24, 2009
The curtains open to reveal a living room packed with guests. We see the birthday girl’s mother sitting on the sofa. There’s Asheley Farmer. Curt. All three kids. Her pastor. More neighbors. Acting pals. Nearly 75 people packed on the stage to celebrate her life.
The group has migrated, crowding around a rented movie projector.
Then the cluster of people quiets as the screen comes to life. A model for the Mattel Pocahontas doll flashes across the screen. Then the Junior Miss Fresno. Snapshots of an aspiring actress. A couple kissing. A Bruin’s cheerleader. A mother and child swimming together. Each one a glimpse of a different stage, a different stage direction.
That was the last time her daughter remembers crying with her mom.
“She’s only 50,” Courtney said. “That still seems so young to me.”