Kelsey Asbille is cheerful and bright on the telephone. Quick to laugh and self-aware, she has just returned to the chill of March in New York from a week in the Dominican Republic with her family for spring break.
“As I get older,” she confides, “being with my family becomes a top priority. So it’s nice just to get everyone together to spend the time.”
Asbille is living a double life, in the way of many ingenues of our day. At 26, she’s balancing her emerging acting career with the pursuit of an education. A student at Columbia, Asbille is majoring in Human Rights with a focus on indigenous rights. This semester’s course load includes Approaches to Contemporary Native American Education and another class specifically on indigenous rights. “My professor, she works at the UN where she was on the committee that wrote the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007.” Asbille stops herself from “geeking out,” but her interest in her studies is apparent in the rush of her words and the rising pitch of her voice.
“I see the value in education. And also: it’s easy to get behind something that you’re passionate about. So with what I’m studying in school and the projects I’m doing as well, I think that’s what fuels me.”
It might also be in her genes. Asbille repeatedly references her family as a source of strength. Her grandparents fled the cultural revolution in China, so her father grew up in Libya, then migrated to
the United States in his early teens. “He has one of those stories that really embodies the American Dream. I’ve definitely grown up with that side of his mentality. I think it’s unfortunate that this fear [of immigrants] is circulating in our society.” Her parents are clearly an inspiration. “My dad is an incredible man. He was an F-16 fighter pilot and became a general in the U.S. Air Force in, I think, 2007. He retired a couple years ago. He’s also a skin cancer surgeon, a dermatologist. He’s really an overachiever! But we’re lucky because he and my mother instilled in us the work ethic that we have to work hard.”
Asbille was cast in 2016’s Wind River, set on the Wyoming Indian reservation from which it took its name. The harrowing film addressed a number of systemic and cultural issues facing the indigenous people in America, specifically addressing the marginalization of women, and how little we know about the crimes committed against them. “It’s a tough watch. The invisibility is a problem; the fact that it’s not a part of the national discussion. I went to a Pow Wow in my home state in South Carolina last weekend. These amazing women have started an indigenous women’s alliance in the Carolinas and they were talking about just that.” Though the movie was set in the West, the same issues a ect indigenous women in the Southeast, as well. “The problem is universal to indigenous women. [Change] ultimately involves participation for both native and non-native groups because it requires the transformation of society as a whole.”
These days, many formerly silenced populations are finding a voice. Asbille is struck by the fire and resolve in the youth of America. She cites one young woman in particular who inspires her. “I see my little sister, who’s 18, and she’s so with it. And I look to her and I see the young women in our society today— and that’s something! I feel like I’m still trying to find my voice, and I’m figuring out how to use it, because that’s not something that I find easy. But I like what I’m studying, and the projects that I’m doing. It’s easy to get passionate about something and then follow the instinct from there.”
Another inspirational voice in the crowd? Parkland Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivor and March for Our Lives organizer, Emma Gonzalez. “I watched that incredible speech. She is a powerhouse. To be able to speak like that, with so much conviction in her voice… that, to me, is the ultimate goal. Because the way she spoke, people listened. And they’re making change.”
Asbille then references a David Bowie lyric, from song “Changes.”
“And these children that you spit on as they try to change their worlds are immune to your consultations. They’re quite aware of what they’re going through.”
What could sum up current events better than that?
When she’s not studying at Columbia or looking to get more involved supporting the initiatives of indigenous women, Asbille is expanding her career. She’ll appear in two television shows this spring. Yellowstone with Kevin Costner on the Paramount network, she reunites with Taylor Sheridan, with whom she worked on Wind River. She’s also in a few episodes of the ABC comedy, Splitting Up Together, with Oliver Hudson and Jenna Fischer. “I play Oliver Hudson’s dance teacher. And I think it’s safe to say that he’s a much better dancer!” She breaks into laughter at this revelation. “Oh goodness! I hope they edited that well!”