Red Wing

Little Dove’s Romance
R: Fred J. Balshofer. K: Arthur C. Miller. D: Red Wing, Charles Inslee, J. Barney Sherry, James Young Deer. P: Bison Motion Pictures / New York Motion Picture. USA 1911

“Native Americans are chief among the casualties of American westward expansion, and their depiction in Westerns remains a serious point of contention among critics of the genre. Critic Jane Tompkins contends that there are ‘no Indian characters, no individuals with a personal history and a point of view’ in the Westerns; she believes that Indians function as ‘props, bits of local color, textural effects…a particularly dangerous form of local wildlife.’  There is an abundance of film which supports Tompkins’s point of view. However, to suggest that there are no films which attempt to treat the subject in a serious manner ignores some of the evidence, particularly during the silent film era. The Indian, not the cowboy, was the first subject of silent Westerns. Interestingly, most of these early films were not violent tales of battle with white soldiers or massacres of pioneer families, but rather stories of life within the Indian community, albeit as white directors imagined that life. William Everson comments that most of the early Westerns which centered around Indians were idyllic love stories. Titles included Grey Cloud’s Devotion, Silver Wing’s Dream, Little Dove’s Romance, and A Squaw’s Love. Everson writes, ‘during this period the Indian became accepted as a symbol of integrity, stoicism, and reliability, with the Indian figure and the Indian head used constantly as an advertising trademark on fruit, tobacco, and other goods.’ At this point in silent film, the Indian was the noble savage, and his interaction with whites was sympathetically portrayed.”
Indians and Mexicans. Alternative Cultures in the Silent Western (

Princess Red Wing and JamesYoung Deer
“This husband-and-wife team, both of the Nebraska Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) tribe, became an influential force in the production of silent one-reel westerns between 1908 and 1913. Though their American film careers were short-lived, they intervened in the industry at a particularly crucial moment in the formation of a genre that would dominate Hollywood production for decades.  Princess Red Wing (the stage name for Lillian St. Cyr) was a graduate of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School and a professional actress. A recognizable presence in cinema, she starred in the first feature-length film — Cecil B. DeMille‘s western, The Squaw Man (1914) — and over thirty-five other films between 1909 and 1921, including Donald Crisp‘s Ramona (1916) and an early Tom Mix picture, In the Days of the Thundering Herd (1914). When James Young Deer took over the West Coast studio operations for the French-owned film company Pathé Frères, he was already a veteran entertainer. He had performed with the Barnum and Bailey circus and the Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch Wild West Show and had acted, directed, and written scenarios for several film companies including Kalem, Lubin, Vitagraph, and Biograph. He also worked at one of the first independent film companies, the New York Motion Picture Company, under the Bison trademark.

With trade journals calling for more authenticity in westerns and Native American and other moviegoers protesting the inaccuracies and negative stereotypes of Indians onscreen and threatening industrywide censorship, Young Deer and St. Cyr were able to leverage their cultural identity and industry experience. From about 1909 to 1913 they used the early flexibility of the industry to exert unprecedented control over popular images of Indians. Both behind the camera and in front of it, Young Deer and St. Cyr rewrote the racial scripts of the western, commenting on racism, assimilation, racial mixture, and cultural contact. Many of their films revisited and revised the wildly popular ‘squaw man’ plot involving a crossracial romance between an Indian woman and white man. Young Deer and Lillian St. Cyr systematically undermined the ‘vanishing Indian’ trope by giving the plots a new political center of gravity.”

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