January 01, 2009

Young Deer and Red Wing

After reading about White Fawn's Devotion and James Young Deer, the first Native film director, I was intrigued. I don't know much about the silent movie era, so I dug deeper. I found a lot of impressive information about Young Deer and his wife.

James Young DeerEarly life

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.
Race and Ethnicity:  Hollywood Whiteness and StereotypesPrincess 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. 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.
Lillian St. Cyr (Princess Red Wing) and James Young Deer:  First Native American Silent Movie "Power Couple"During the early silent movie era, Indians were generally portrayed in a positive way. Directors often sought out real Indians to act as Indians on film. Movie historian William K. Everson, in American Silent Film, suggests that "during this period the Indian became accepted as a symbol of integrity, stoicism, and reliability . . ." As such, Red Wing and Young Deer were an asset to any movie-making company.

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.
Comment:  The last two articles are worth reading in full. Check 'em out.

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."


dmarks said...

"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."

I'd certainly cut them some slack on the "doomed romance" part, a staple of romantic fiction, film, and other art for many centuries, whether or not Natives are involved. The rest, of course, is more like a checklist of stereotypes. I'm surprised at the lack of totem poles, however.

dmarks said...

Also, "Red Wing" was the name of a succession of Eastern Dakota chiefs


The city of Red Wing, Minnesota bears his name. In some versions of the Winona "Lover's Leap" legend, "Princess Winona" is the daughter of Chief Red Wing, which makes her "Princess Red Wing" in a way.

Rob said...

It's the interracial aspect of the doomed romances that matters here. These romances were doomed because whites and others weren't supposed to mix. And because Indians were supposed to vanish off the face of the earth.

Proving the point, did early movies show lots of doomed interracial marriages between whites and blacks? No. Why not? Despite rampant prejudice against blacks at the time, no one thought they were going to disappear.

I didn't complain about the name "Red Wing," did I? The names I complain about are the made-up ones like Brave Eagle, Grey Wolf, and Little Fawn. Such names are a cliché among Indian wannabes.

Even if you can find Indians with similar names, they're stereotypical. Why? Because wannabes choose these clichéd names much more often than they occur in reality. And because wannabes never choose non-clichéd names such as Blue Duck, Spotted Beaver, Kills Straight, or One Who Yawns.

Anonymous said...

When one pursues the existance of J. Younger Johnston / James Young Deer you quickly discover a rather shady character. There is no record of him on"Ho Chunk" rolls and I found no record of him or his family in either Dakota/Thurston county, Nebraska and/or Oklahoma records. Another point often written about is his return from Europe in 1919 - no record. He had legal problems in California, skipped the country before the case was settled and re-entered the U.S. in 1914 aboard the S.S. Cedric (he listed his race as "White" on the ship's passenger list and his birthplace as Dakota city, NE, on 1 Apr 1893.

He would have been 9 years younger than his wife. She also became an actress after her marriage, not before.

I believe that James Young Deer would have to be identified an another Indian "Wannabe."

Rob said...

Thanks for the info, Anonymous. For more on the subject, see Young Deer a Fake Indian?