The First Native American Director

White Fawn’s Devotion
R: James Young Deer. P: Pathé Frères. USA 1910
Filming Locations: New Jersey, USA
Print: Library of Congress

White Fawn’s Devotion has been called the earliest surviving film directed by a Native American. Released in June 1910, it is also among the first films made in America by France’s Pathé Frères, then the world’s largest film production company. U.S. motion picture trade journals, in a battle both cultural and economic, had ridiculed the English saddles and gingham-shirted Indians in Pathé’s European-made Westerns. Pathé’s answer was to open a studio in New Jersey and hire as director of its Westerns a Native American, James Young Deer. After Pathé opened a Los Angeles branch, Young Deer would be promoted to its gen­eral manager. (…) In part because he was never given credit on-screen for any of the approximately 120 films he directed for Pathé between 1910 and 1913, James Young Deer has become a completely forgotten figure, and his films are impossible to attribute with certainty. Only about six are thought to survive in U.S. archives.
White Fawn’s Devotion, like almost all American Westerns before it, was shot in the East. As with several other Young Deer films (to judge from their plot descriptions), it draws from the popular 1905 stage melodrama ‘The Squaw Man’ —about a Briton whose Indian wife sacrifices herself by suicide—but alters the outcome significantly. (…)
For all its simple pantomime style, White Fawn’s Devotion arrives at a conclusion almost unknown in the era’s film or fiction: The interracial couple live happily ever after. The surviving print, preserved by the Library of Congress, is missing a few feet at its end, and Pathé’s publicity fills in the resolution: ‘The Combs take their departure and return to their home, for he feels he will be happier with his family on the plains than if he goes east and claims his legacy.’ It was only when Young Deer reversed the sexes of the interracial couple that reviewers were outraged. About (the unfortunately lost) Red Deer’s Devotion, which Young Deer shot in the West in 1911, ‘Moving Picture World’ said: ‘Another feature of this film will not please a good many. It represents a white girl and an Indian falling in love with each other. While such a thing is possible, and undoubtedly has been done many times, there is still a feeling of disgust which cannot be overcome when this sort of thing is depicted as plainly as it is here.’
Between 1908 and 1912, Native American images were seen more widely on movie screens than ever again. In 1913, ‘Moving Picture World’ reported that ‘Indian dramas… are played out’ and that film companies were hanging NO INDIANS WANTED signs. That is also the year that James Young Deer — who surfaced briefly in the British and French film industries — essentially vanished from the American movie business.”
Scott Simmon
Film Preservation