Cast and Crew Members at Inceville in Santa Monica, circa 1915
Before the emergence of Hollywood and the studio system, moviemaking was something of a free-for-all, open to anyone that could afford it. In the US, that privileged group was almost exclusively white and male. Roles for minorities were usually crudely stereotypical, minor, and liable to be played by a white actor in yellowface, brownface, blackface or redface. As a result, some minority figures attempted to start their own alternatives. In 1916, Oakland resident Marion Wong made the first example of Asian-American Cinema with The Curse of Quon Gwon. A few years later, Anna Mae Wong and Sessue Hayakawa began making films. In 1918, John Noble invented Black Cinema with Birth of a Race. He was soon joined in his endeavor by Oscar Mischeaux.
True Native American cinema beat them both by almost a decade. The mainstream view of Natives at the time was generally less murderously hateful than those of contemporary Asians and blacks (or the Natives' ancestors). In fact, Natives were widely adored and fetishized, what Frank Chin would later term “love racism." Natives, regardless of reality, were reduced to mere metaphors and symbols… for stoicism, honor, strength, &c. Edward S. Curtis's 1914 In the Land of the Headhunters and Robert Flaherty's 1922 Nanook of the North have little to do with reality, but did reflect well-meaning white men’s attempts to portray their subjects with some respect, even if it meant they had to fictionalize and stage everything.
However, beating them to the punch was a member of the Ho-Chunk nation, James Young Deer. Red Deer was born in Dakota City, Nebraska in an unknown year. He was already a showbiz veteran by the time he got into film, having previously performed with the Barnum and Bailey circus and the Miller Brothers' 101 Ranch Wild West Show. In 1909, the New York Picture Company established their western imprint, Bison Motion Pictures, in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Edendale, then the center of west coast film production. Fred J. Balshofer was put in charge and Young Deer directed the first Native American film with 1909’s The Falling Arrow. Young Deer also co-starred in the picture, along with his wife, Red Wing.
Red Wing, Young Deer and cast members
Red Wing, Young Deer and cast members
Red Wing was born Lillian St. Cyr on February 13th, 1883 on Nebraska's Ho-Chunk Reservation to a white father and a Ho-Chunk mother. When Lillian was four years old, her mother died. Red Wing and two of her siblings were sent off to pro-assimilation schools. Red Wing went to Carlisle Indian Industrial School; her siblings Julia and David attended Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia. On April 9th, 1906 she married James Young Deer. Working together behind and in front of the camera, the couple began working on films that addressed racism, assimilation, miscegenation and cultural clashes between whites and reds. That year, they also worked on For Her Sale; or, Two Sailors and a Girl and Red Wing's Gratitude (both 1909).
France’s Pathé Frères, in a bid for greater authenticity, hired Red Wing and Young Deer in 1910. They worked primarily in New Jersey until Red Deer became head of Pathe's West Coast studios. In Los Angeles, they were also in demand as actors. Cecil B. DeMille chose Red Wing to star in 1914’s The Squaw Man, the first feature-length picture shot in LA.
In the 1910s, the moviemaking landscape was changing. William Selig moved from Edendale to Lincoln Heights and opened a zoo. Nestor Studio opened in Hollywood. Over the next two years, so did more than a dozen other studios. Red Wing continued acting, appearing in over 35 films between 1909 and 1921.
Young Deer continued to direct and act. He directed White Fawn's Devotion: A Play Acted by a Tribe of Red Indians in America Under Both Flags, The Red Girl and the Child, A Cheyenne Brave, An Indian's Gratitude, Cowboy Justice and The Yaqui Girl (all 1910); Red Deer's Devotion (1911); The Squaw Man's Sweetheart and The Unwilling Bride (both 1912); The Savage (1913); Who Laughs Last and The Stranger (both 1920); and Lieutenant Daring RN and the Water Rats (1924).
He acted (often for Balshofer) in The True Heart of an Indian, The Mended Lute, Red Wing's Gratitude and Young Deer's Bravery (all 1909); The Ten of Spades; or, A Western Raffle, Young Deer's Gratitude, The Cowboy and the Schoolmarm, The Indian and the Cowgirl, The Red Girl and the Child and Young Deer's Return (all 1910); Red Deer's Devotion and Little Dove's Romance (both 1911); The Unwilling Bride (1912); Against Heavy Odds (1914); Under Handicap (1917); and Man of Courage (1922).
Red Wing and Young Deer's film careers were mostly over by the 1920s. Young Deer worked in France, making documentaries between 1913 and 1919. Red Wing worked as a college lecturer and civil rights activist. During the 1930s, Young Deer worked occasionally as a second-unit director on B-movies and serials. He died in New York City in April 1946. Red Wing died on March 13th, 1974.
Of the young, minority cinemas, only Black Cinema continued to prosper through the rise and fall of Hollywood, in part because there was a large black film-going audience who craved an alternative to Hollywood’s viciously demeaning portrayal of their people. With much smaller audiences, depictions and roles for Native Americans, like Asians, were completely co-opted by Hollywood for the next 50 or so years. For half a century, Natives in Hollywood existed almost exclusively within westerns, with rare exceptions like The Exiles (1961) and Through Navajo Eyes (1972).