Depictions of Native people in Hollywood have been as racist as what was and is happening in the U.S. in general, but there are notable exceptions and some signs of hope that were on display at the recent conference, “Carlisle Journeys: American Indians in Show Business,” sponsored by the Cumberland County Historical Society (CCHS).
On October 10 and 11, scholars, writers, actors and historians gathered at CCHS in Carlisle, Pennsylvania to share information about famous graduates of Carlisle Indian Industrial School like Lillian St. Cyr and Jim Thorpe, as well as to discuss the challenges and careers of Native people in contemporary film and television.
The stories of how some Carlisle graduates overcame tremendous odds to become famous movie actors and directors include the stories of how Carlisle used their students for fundraising, as well as how the students and actors themselves used school presentations and media to tell their own stories sometimes subverting the original intentions of the presentation.
The list of presenters included contemporary performers like actor/stuntman Larry Sellers (Osage, Cherokee, Lakota) and the troupe of young actors that make up the 1491’s, but also the descendant of the great actor/director Minnie Pease (Osage), along with nationally respected scholars who have studied Carlisle or and its graduates.
The conference began with a centering prayer and a talk by Dr. Jacqueline Fear-Segal of the University of East Anglia, England. Fear-Segal talked about how school officials took photos of Native students as part of a colonial archive, and part of publicizing the assimilation and acculturation process. She did note, however, that some students became actively engaged in the photographic and artistic projects sponsored by the school and used them for other reasons.
“Because when claiming photographs for their own agendas they often destabilized and subverted the original purposes of these images,” Fear Segal said. “While there was never a Native eye behind the lens at Carlisle until the 1890s, some Carlisle students did create alternative self-representations while at the school by actively engaging with the artistic traditions of the plains by using drawings to express and perform aspects of their own identities.”
In his presentation called “Humanizing the Dehumanized” Sellers talked briefly about the history of the wars against Native people and the negative portrayals in Hollywood, even until today.
“In the movie industry, you either had to be a savage, noble red man or mystical metaphysical fool… and always kept in the past—always kept in history,” Sellers said. “I can play a judge on a TV show, or an attorney in a movie, but we’re never cast that way.”
Sellers did note that the show “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” was the first to incorporate Native thought through his help as a consultant. In his role as Cloud Dancing he spoke grammatically correct English only after fighting with executives who wanted him to speak broken English.
A summary of those negative images and some important historical background are featured in the groundbreaking documentary Reel Injun. Media scholar and Professor John Sanchez, Yaqui/Apache, provided further context of the effect of negative images on Native people and the entire nation by discussing some of his work relating to media.
Sammie Harmon, granddaughter of Carlisle graduate and actor/director Minnie Pease shared some of the achievements of her illustrious ancestor at the conference. In an interview after the event Harmon pointed out a few of the highlights of Pease’s career.
“In 1926, Minnie was the principal in the Cinema Schools Incorporated of Las Vegas, of which Dailey Studios was the parent company. She produced movies with Cecil B. De Mille. One of the movies was titled, The Prisoner,” Harmon said. “I knew my grandmother well. She passed away when I was 16 years old. I think I was most impressed by her great faith, positivity, and that she was fearless. She was also a healer. I call her an Osage Woman Warrior. She purchased a movie studio at a time when women were rarely accepted outside of the home.”
One of the other famous Carlisle graduates featured at the conference was Lillian St. Cyr, performed in many silent movies, and was the first Native woman to star in a feature film, Cecil B. Demille’s The Squaw Man in 1914
Writer/researcher Linda M. Waggoner pointed out some of the other high points of St. Cyr’s life.
“After Lillian quit the movies, her whole thing was to educate the public about Indians. According to her own brief autobiography, ‘after I left Hollywood I bought the state’s rights for the Tom Mix pictures I played in and traveled in many states with the pictures giving an educational program in conjunction with the pictures.’” Waggoner said, “She hoped to offer ‘the real deal’ as opposed to what the audience saw on screen. She also designed and made her own outfits. She was an excellent bead, leather, and feather worker.”
“Lillian’s educational performances were a big deal in her time, especially in the 1930s. She was not only constrained by the things she did not know—she lived most of her life off-reservation—but also by what the audience would accept. If she wanted to express ‘resistance’ to the dominant culture she had to couch it in subtle terms and images and songs. Yet, nonetheless, as indigenous film scholar Michele Rajeha, has explained, Lillian intended to express ‘visual sovereignty.’ If you look carefully at her work, she was also making fun of some of the very stereotypes she performed in films,” Waggoner said.
The conference also included information about one of the most famous Natives in the U.S., Jim Thorpe. Biographer Kate Buford noted that while many people thought Thorpe’s life after the 1912 Olympics was a “long, sad slide” his accomplishments as an actor and organizer tell another story.
“Once there, because he was so famous, he was not only sought out as a spokesman for Indian causes, but he formed his own casting company to pressure the Hollywood studios to hire real Indians to play Indians in the admittedly stereotypical Westerns of the time. The studios were not fussy: they’d hire Italians, Greeks, Mexicans to play Indians. It was the Great Depression and the huge number of Indians who flocked to Hollywood to try to make money in movies needed the work. Thorpe was an important advocate in the 1930s for the Indian stuntmen and women with the studios,” Buford said.
“As I said this weekend,” Buford added, “an important discovery for me in writing the biography, was that Thorpe—like many Indians in Hollywood at the time—got more in touch with his Indian background and identity in the unlikely context of the movies than he had since leaving Carlisle in 1913. He began to organize powwows and Indian dances and rituals for the Indian community, himself and his children.”