Jay Silverheels - Happy American Indian Heritage Month

Posted by Eric Brightwell, November 24, 2010 02:00pm | Post a Comment

Jay Silverheels was a Kanien'kehá:ka actor born Harold J. Smith on May 26th, 1912. He was born on the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation reservation, the most populous First Nation in Canada, and the only nation in which all six Iroquois nations live together. He was the third of eleven children born to Major George Smith, the most decorated Native American soldier in the Canadian Army, who served in World War I.

Harold began going by the name Jay and was given the nickname Silverheels when he played on the lacrosse team, the Mohawk Stars, at sixteen. He later moved across the Niagara River to play lacrosse on the North American Amateur Lacrosse Association team, the Rochester Iroquois. He also boxed and in 1938 placed second in the middleweight section of the Golden Gloves tournament. He lived for a time in Buffalo, where he had his first son, Ron, with Edna Lickers.

The previous year he'd begun working in film, as an extra in the musical comedy, Make a Wish. He married his first wife, Bobbi, and they had a daughter named Sharon. They divorced in 1943. Over the next few years he appeared, usually uncredited, as a stuntman or extra in The Sea Hawk, Too Many Girls, Hudson's Bay, Wester Union, Jungle Girl, This Woman is Mine, Valley of the Sun, Perils of Nyoka, Good Morning, Judge, Daredevils of the West, The Girl from Monterrey, Northern Pursuit, The Phantom, I Am an American, Raiders at the Border, Passage to Marseille, The Tiger Woman, Haunted Harbor, Lost in a Harem and Song of the Sarong.

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Red Wing and Young Deer, the First Couple of Native American Silent Film

Posted by Eric Brightwell, November 20, 2010 04:00pm | Post a Comment

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.

In the Land of the Head Hunters movie poster 

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.

Red Wing, Young Deer and cast members

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 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).

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Urban Indians - Great Cities of Native America - Happy American Indian Heritage Month

Posted by Eric Brightwell, November 4, 2010 04:30pm | Post a Comment
It's not that surprising, given our Hollywood history of Native Americans, that the media feel it necessary to coin a term like "Urban Indians." Since Native Americans exist in popular culture as stewards of nature who spend their lives camping under the stars and measuring times in "moons," the fact that millions of Native Americans live in cities doesn't jibe with our media-reinforced notions of race as it corresponds to population density. Thus "urban" is shorthand for black and "suburban" means white. Any exceptions would be similarly worth qualifying, like "suburban blacks" or "country Asians" (e.g. Henry Cho).

So anyway, Natives have a long history of being "urban." Before being decimated by disease, warfare, slavery and famine, Natives were responsible for creating some of the biggest, most-populated cities of their day. Here are some of my favorite Native American urban centers...




Caral was inhabited between roughly 2600 BC and 2000 BC and covered 66 hectares. It's one of the oldest towns in the Americas in what's today Peru) and was home to more than 3,000 members of what is now known as the Norte Chico Civilization



Kuelap was a fortress town built by the Chachapoyas, "People of the Clouds," originally to stop the expansion of the Inca Empire and later used to fight the Spaniards. It was built on the edge of a mountain in the 9th century CE (in what's now Peru) and included more than 400 homes, palaces and temples protected by a 70-foot-wall.


Chan Chan

Chan Chan was built by the Chimú in what's today Peru. Chan Chan covered 20 km² and was built around 850. At its height it was home to around 30,000 people. Chan Chan was the capital of their Chimor Kingdom which lasted roughly from 900 CE until 1470, when they were conquered by the imperialistic Inca.

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The situation in Ngulu Mapu intensifies

Posted by Eric Brightwell, August 31, 2009 01:16pm | Post a Comment
Although it's received little-to-no coverage in most mainstream media, clashes between Mapuche activists and the Chilean government have intensified as of late. Two days ago, thousands of Mapuche and other Chileans gathered around the country to protest plans for damming many of the country's rivers. This was only the latest round in a growing protest movement over land rights issues in Ngulu Mapu, the Mapuche homeland.

Just two weeks ago, a young Mapuche, Jaime Mendoza Collío, was shot in the back and killed by a Chilean police officer. The police were attempting to evict a group of about eighty Mapuche who were occuypying the San Sebastián farm. Following Collío's death, many Mapuche took to the streets of Temuco demanding direct talks with the Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet. The killing of Collío was only the latest death of a Mapuche at the hands of Chilean police. On January 3, 2008, 22-year-old Mapuche student Matias Catrileo was shot and killed by police. 17-year-old Alex Lemun was similarly shot and killed in November of 2002.

The Mapuche, whose claims to Ngulu Mapu stem from thousands of years of continuous presence, routinely clash with the Chilean governments as it sells off more and more of the Mapuche homelands to foreign mining companies which wreak considerable environmental destruction whilst reaping considerable profits. Meanwhile, large timber firms (most state-owned) continue to deforest the countryside. Most of the timber ends up in the US, at an annual profit of about $600 million. After the forests are destroyed, the timber firms replant the area with thirsty, non-native trees like eucalyptus. Those who speak out against what they call environmental racism are frequently arrested under the banner of counter-terrorism. The government regularly applies laws enacted during the Pinochet dictatorship to imprison activists, especially those belonging to Mapuche organizations like Coordinadora Arauco-Malleco (CAM).

In 1993, the government passed a law that recognizes Mapuche and Chile's other indigenous peoples and allows for Mapudungun, their language, to be taught in schools. For many, much more needs to be done. In addition to seeking the ownership of their ancestral homeland, the Mapuche seek constitutional recognition of their tribal identity, rights and culture. Toward that aim, a delegation of Mapuche leaders recently traveled to Geneva to appear before the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), where they hoped to gain condemnation of the Chilean goverment's alleged environmental racism.

Susana Abgélica y Los Peñis

The Mapuche's origins aren't agreed upon and their languaage, Mapudungun, is variously classified as relating to other Andean languages, Carribean Arawak, Mayan and even North American Penutian. Recent DNA analysis has shown that the Mapuche's Araucana chicken is native to Polynesia and was a staple of their diet before the European colonization of the Americas, suggesting that there was trade between Pacific Islanders and Native Americans (Rapa Nui is off the Chilean coast). The Mapuche also succesfully resisted several attempts by the mighty Inca empire to subjugate them. Although the Spaniards first claimed the lands in the 16th century, the Mapuche proved so effective in driving them away that it wasn't until 1862 that any permanent Chilean presence was established. It was the longest indigenous resistance struggle in the western hempisphere and, as recent tensions reveal, for many Mapuche, it continues.

Nancy San Martín
For those interested in Mapuche in film, there are several movies that focus on Mapuche issues, including Mapuche (1972), La Nave de Los Locos (1995) and the documentary Huinchan. There are also, of course, many CDs representing the music of Mapuche people, ranging from traditional to, inevitably, hip-hop. In addition to the artists featured above, Mapuzungun, Groupe Kalfucanelo, Tino La Guitarra Mapuche, Beatriz Pichi Malen and many other examples of music representing the voice of the Mapuche are available.

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Greenland --> Naalakkersuisut - And Inuit cinema and music

Posted by Eric Brightwell, July 9, 2009 10:22pm | Post a Comment

Though Greenland has been home-ruled since 1979, on June 21, 2009, the Danish government made steps toward granting Greenland full independence. In a 2008 referendum, 76% of the 58,000 residents of the sparsely populated island voted for self-rule and the Danish government has been handing over control of services to the local government and making symbolic changes, like changing the official language to Kalaallisut (the Inuit language of most Greenlanders) and renaming the country Naalakkersuisut.

Every schoolchild has at least a vague awareness of Greenland, that conspicuously white island (decidedly not green) near the top of most globes. According to Eiríks saga rauða (the saga of Eric the Red) and Íslendingabók (the book of Icelanders), the name was chosen to attract settlement by promoting Greenland as an attractive place to live.

Although part of the North American Tectonic plate, Eurocentric models of North American discovery either credit Columbus or Bjarni Herjólfsson with discovering the New World when they sighted the Caribbean and Canada, respectively. As Wikipedia's entry on the Norwegian explorer states, "Bjarni is believed to be the first European to see North America," which he did in the summer of 986 on the way to visit his parents in Greenland, and island which is itself part of North America. So Europeans (including Herjólfsson’s parents) had already "discovered" Greenland, although many before have quite reasonably questioned one's ability to discover something already known for thousands of years to many people.


Although Naalakkersuisut is economically and geographically closer to the Inuit state of Nunavut (separated only by the narrow Nares Strait), it is nonetheless still viewed by many as a remote corner of Europe. Now, with moves toward independence and changes that reflect its Inuit majority, that all may begin to change.


The Saqqaq Culture (2500 BCE to 800 BCE) and the Independence I Culture (2400 BCE to 1300 BCE)

The story of Naalakkersuisut’s settlement involves successive waves of people who came and went until the arrival of the proto-Inuit Thule people, who’ve been there ever since. The first inhabitants, referred to as the Saqqaq Culture, are mostly known of due to the discovery of their stone tools and harpoon heads and other traces of their settlement in the western part of the country. No one knows why they disappeared, but conditions on Naalakkersuisut have always been pretty severe, with most of the island an uninhabited arctic desert, and it's believed that it got colder around the time of their disappearance. The Saqqaq culture was joined by the Independence I culture which existed in the northeast part of the country. Though they arrived later than the Saqqaq Culture, they disappeared before them too, leaving behind large mammal bones, walrus bone artifacts and other remnants of their settlements.

The Independence II & Dorset Culture(s) (800 BCE-1500AD)

The Greenlandic Dorset came as the Saqqaq culture was disappearing and its people lived in a much more extensive coastal territory, building long-houses and hunting with quartz blades. Although historically viewed as separate from the intermediate Independence II Culture in the north, recent finds have suggested a greater continuity. The Dorset Culture were probably one of possibly several peoples referred to by the Vikings as the Skraelings. The Vikings thought of the Skraelings as separate from humans and more like trolls and described them as ill-favored little people who used whale teeth and sharp stone tools, who had ugly hair, large eyes and were broad in the cheeks. Nonetheless, it was the Skraelings (although possibly a different people) who summarily destroyed the Vikings' colonies in Vinland.

The Norse (985 AD-1408AD)

When the Norse arrived in Naalakkersuisut, the once extensive Dorset people had already abandoned the southern portion of their realm and the Vikings settled there. Unlike the previous inhabitants, the Vikings weren't at all self-sufficient and relied on trading local products with Europe in exchange for timber, iron and other goods. During the Little Ice Age, the Vikings lost contact with Europe. When contact was reestablished, the Vikings were gone.

The Thule & Inuit (1200 AD-present)

The proto-Inuit Thule Culture first arose in Alaska around 1000 AD. Employing superior technology (like dog-drawn sleds) and bow & arrows, they quickly expanded over the next two centuries, arriving in Naalakkersuisut around 1200. At apparent odds with the Viking accounts of the Dorset Culture, the Thule described the the Sivullirmiut (first inhabitants) as giants… albeit giants that were easily driven out of their homeland by the Thule.

Greenlandic music can generally be divided into two camps, Danish and Inuit. The largest label is the tiny ULO in tiny Sisimiut, which releases rock, pop, rap and traditional Inuit music. Inuit Greenlandic traditional music, not surprisingly, shares many characteristics with their Inuit cousins to the west in Nunavut and Alaska and is comprised of three main genres.

Drum Dances

Drumdances are a frequently competitive form of music in which, to the beat of a bear bladder drum, contestants insult and make fun of one another, trying to get bigger laughs than the opponent out of the audience. Other times drumdances are performed solo by shamen.


Piseq are more along the lines of most folk music, ancient songs passed down through the centuries and told with a more personal bent.


In Naalakkersuisut, throat-singing is done only by females, much as in the tradition of the distantly-related Ainu of Japan and Sakhalin. The music is a form of game in which two competitors try to elicit laughter by imitating animal noises and other techniques.

  Susan Aglukark   Inuit - fifty-five historical recordings

Inuit Music on CD

The filing of Inuit music at the Hollywood Amoeba perhaps reflects some of the confusion and lack of awareness about these Native American peoples and it can be hard to find. Tanya Tagaq Gillis, an Inuk singer from Ikaluktuutiak, Nunavut, has her music filed in the Icelandic section (although Inuit have no historical presence there). On the other hand, fellow Inuk singer Susan Aglukark is filed in folk. The Greenland section (not yet re-named Naalakkersuisut) is located within the larger section of Europe, despite all Inuit regions being in North America. At the time of writing, there were only two CDs filed in the Greenland section. One was a collection a collection of Evenk music. Evenkia, for the record, is a nation in North Asia. The other CD is called Inuit -- Fifty-Five Historical Recordings and features recordings from wax cylinder's dawn in 1905 all the way up to 1987. It provides a fascinating listen and even the earliest recordings have surprisingly good sound quality.

Although not exactly Bollywood, there have been several films made and/or filmed in Naalakkersuisut over the years, including:

S.O.S. Isberg
(1933), Nâlagkersuissut okarput tássagôk (1973), Narsaq - ung by i Grønland (1979), Uuttoq - Kaali på sælfangst (1985), Qaamarngup uummataa (1998), Godnat - Sinilluarit (1999) and Le Voyage d'Inuk (2009).


Nunavut has produced, on the whole, more widley accessible films and better known Inuit films including:

Nanook of the North
(1922), The White Dawn (1974), Atanarjuat (2001), The Snow Walker (2003), The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (2006), Ce qu'il faut pour vivre (2008) and Le jour avant le lendemain (2008).

Inuit Alaska

In the Alaskan Inuit homeland, several films have focused largely on Inuit, including:

Igloo (1932), Eskimo (1933), Red Snow (1952), Snow Bear (1970), Never Cry Wolf (1983) and On Deadly Ground (1994), Sikumi (2008)


If you’re in the mood for less authentic representations of Inuit, you could check out these films in which mostly white and Asian actors (or cartoon characters) portray Inuk characters:

Little Pal (1915), Justice of the Far North (1925), Frozen Justice (1929), Sin Sister (1929), Man of Two Worlds (1934), Girl from God’s Country (1940), The Savage Innocents (1959), Legend of Amaluk (1971), Electric Eskimo (1979), Seabert -- The Adventure Begins (1987), Map of the Human Heart (1993), Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1996), Mama, Do You Love Me? (1999), Inuk (2001), Far North (2007), Shadow of the Wolf (1992) and North Star (1996).

There are also several documentaries about Inuit throughout their various homelands, including:
Edge of Ice: Polar Ecosystem and Inuit Culture, The Great North, Baked Alaska, Arctic Dreamer: The Lonely Quest of Vilhjalmur Stefansson, The Complete Alaska, Grønland, In the Footsteps of the Inuit: The History of Nunavik, Mother, The Living Edens: Arctic Oasis -- Canada's Southhampton Island, The Year of the Hunter: The Story of Nanook, Knud, If the Weather Permits, Seeking the Way: The Hockey Journey of the Tootoo Brothers, Broken Promises: The High Arctic Relocation, Inuuvunga, The Prize of the Pole and The Ultimate Kings of Thule.

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