For Lillian St. Cyr, her role in the 90-minute film would make Hollywood history.
The Squaw Man was co-directed by Cecil B. DeMille and Oscar C. Apfel and based upon the successful stage play by Edwin Milton Royle. The movie’s story of an Indian woman who married a white man and tragically killed herself exposed the problem of social prejudice surrounding Indian/white unions.
“And I was hired mainly because I was a real Indian rather than an actor,” Lillian told the New York World-Telegram in 1935. (It should be noted that Lillian St. Cyr is not related to the burlesque star Lily St. Cyr.)
But her performance stunned veteran actor Dustin Farnum when she so convincingly broke into hysterics for a scene. “In all my years on the stage I never saw anything like it,” he told The Moving Picture Word in 1914. “It was absolutely the reverse of everything we have been taught about Indians.”
Lillian’s acting career began years earlier. In 1906, she married the business-savvy James Young Deer (Nanticoke) who discovered that during an era of dime novels and Wild West Shows, he and Lillian could entertain audiences and “pass” for Plains Indians.
So the couple joined 100 or so (Lakota) Sioux Indians at New York City’s enormous Hippodrome Theatre as part of the “Pioneer Days: A Spectacle Drama of Western Life.” Together they reenacted stagecoach battles and performed the Ghost Dance against a breathtaking orange moon.
When the pair teamed up with Chief [Sherman] Charging Hawk, they posed as “authentic” Sioux Indians from the Pine Ridge Agency and regularly entertained at Manhattan’s social clubs. Lillian, now “Princess Red Wing,” became Charging Hawk’s 16-year-old niece and serenaded audiences with “My Navajo” and “Arrowana.”
Back then, these performances were one way for Native people to assert their own cultural identity. Both Young Deer and Lillian knew white America’s expectations and adapted as a means of survival.
The couple soon captured the attention of early filmmakers who capitalized on the Western formula and churned out one- and two-reel “shorts” every week. Kalem’s The White Squaw (1908) was possibly Lillian’s first short film. A year later, D.W. Griffith hired the pair as actors and technical advisors for two of his Indian tales.
In November 1909, Young Deer and Lillian were among the small company of Bison’s stock players that headed to sunny Los Angeles. (The couple now identified themselves as Winnebago.) Lillian rose to prominence as she and her husband starred in many Bison movies actually named after their characters, Young Deer and Red Wing.
But Young Deer got his big break in 1910 when became head of production for Pathé Frères, a French-based company that opened a studio near Los Angeles. As director and scenario writer for nearly 150 Western shorts, Young Deer delivered quirky stories with thrilling stunts and often cast his wife as the female Indian lead.
The Squaw Man was the highlight of Lillian’s career and her first feature film. She also had a small role in Fighting Bob (1915) and played an Indian woman who fell in love with cowboy star Tom Mix for In the Days of the Thundering Herd (1914). The 1916 version of Ramona, based upon the Helen Hunt Jackson novel, featured Lillian as Ramona’s mother.
In 1921, she had an uncredited role in White Oak starring silent Western hero William S. Hart.
Her last feature was a Richard Barthelmess film, Soul Fire (1925), in which she reportedly played a minor role as a South Sea maiden.
Young Deer and Lillian eventually separated, and tribal records show that by 1920 she was single and living with her brother Louis in Omaha.
But movie offers dwindled, and Lillian retired from acting. Meanwhile, her sister Julia and her niece had made a home in New York City with its thriving urban Indian community. By the mid-1920s, Lillian made up her mind to join them.
Part Three to follow: Lillian after Hollywood