James Young Deer
Born J. Younger Johnston in Dakota City, Nebraska, Young Deer was a member of the Nebraska Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) tribe. He began his entertainment career in the 1890s with the Barnum and Bailey Circus and Miller Brothers' 101 Ranch Wild West Show.
On April 9, 1906, he married actress Lillian St. Cyr, known by her stage name of Princess Red Wing. St. Cyr was also a member of the Nebraska Ho-Chunk tribe.
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. In films such as For the Papoose (1912) and White Fawn's Devotion (1910), mixed-race families answer to the tribe's justice systems and mixedblood children remain part of their Indian communities rather than being taken away to be raised in adoptive white families or in boarding schools.
At first, Red Wing and Young Deer worked mainly with the New York Motion Picture Company, founded in 1909 by Adam Kessel, Charles Baumann and Fred J. Balshofer. When Balshofer moved to Bison Pictures, Red Wing and Young Deer joined him there.
During his early years as a director, Young Deer was praised for his depiction of complex, strong, heroic Indians. His movies addressed racism, prejudice, miscegenation, and assimilation. Unfortunately, as the twentieth century entered its teens, changing social mores and increasing censorship eroded the film industry's earlier values so that Young Deer's later works began to reflect watered-down values.
Red Wing was in great demand as an actress. She was beautiful, vibrant, and sympathetic. Audiences liked her brave sacrifices on film. Furthermore, she frequently performed her own stunts--everything from riding horses at breakneck speed to being trapped in burning buildings. At the time, it was also common practice for actors to serve as crew members, designing and building sets, placing props, and doing any other necessary production work.
Film Western stories often revolved around inter-racial marriage. Usually a white man wed an Indian woman, although occasionally the roles were reversed. The tales involved family issues and society's reaction to the marriage. Often there were tragic endings.
This story is definitely a case of "the more things change, the more they remain the same. Almost a century ago, Hollywood was doing about as well as it's doing now: trying to portray Indians positively and hiring Indian actors. Almost a century ago, Natives were protesting negative stereotypes and the "vanishing Indian" trope. So much for the asinine claim that critics like me are Johnny-come-lately "do-gooders" who don't reflect Native concerns.
Almost a century ago, movies addressed serious issues such as racism, assimilation, and interracial marriage. Almost a century ago, they still engaged in serious stereotyping: the stoic warrior, the beautiful princess, the doomed romance. Not to mention the teepees, the big chief, and the lack of authentic culture and history.
After movies like Apocalypto, Comanche Moon, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Twilight, you wonder: Have things gotten any better? Or is Hollywood still giving us the same ol' half-hearted tries filled with mistakes and stereotypes?
For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.
Below: "Princess Red Wing."