September 23, 2010

Young Deer a fake Indian?

Last year I posted something about James Young Deer, who supposedly was the first Native filmmaker. Turns out there's more to his story:

The first Native American director.  Or was he?

How the mysterious James Young Deer came to live in East Finchley. And how he made it to YouTube

By Matthew Sweet
He was an actor, director and producer who managed a prolific Californian studio that specialised in westerns. But his films had an angle that distinguished them from all the rest, and would, under different circumstances, have assured his name a comfortable place among the masters of the genre. Young Deer was celebrated as that unaccountably rare being, a Native American film-maker–a member of the Winnebago tribe. In his movies, the Indians were never the villains. Instead of howling around bonfires and turning stagecoaches into porcupines, they were figures of heroism and moral authority.And:In 1913, the San Francisco papers buzzed with articles alleging his involvement with a "white slavery ring" in Orange County. The testimony of a 15-year-old girl saddled him with a charge of statutory rape. Young Deer claimed he was the victim of a racist conspiracy–"the vengeance that the white men meted out to Indians." With the tacit approval of the judge, he jumped his $1,500 bail and fled the US to make a new life abroad.And:On a patch of land now occupied by the Newstead Children's Centre adventure playground, he clocked on for British and Colonial Films to make crime melodramas about heroic street urchins and dashing heroes of Empire. For The Papoose and Cowboy Justice gave way to The Black Cross Gang and The Water Rats of London.And:The man himself is a less accessible presence. Even the most basic facts of his biography are disputed. His name appears nowhere on the Winnebago tribal rolls. I have spent hours staring at his photograph, trying to assess whether he truly was what he claimed to be, or whether he was something else entirely: an African American, perhaps, who decided that going Native would be good for his career.Comment:  We know actors like Iron Eyes Cody pretended to be Indian. I'm sure others did too. But we're just finding out about Young Deer after almost a century? Strange.

For more on the subject, see White Fawn's Devotion Recognized and The Best Indian Movies.

Below:  "James Young Deer, front right. Photograph: Kevin Brownlow Collection."


Anonymous said...

We don't know because film historians are realizing that the bios in the Hollywood trades were often embellished and no one (until recently) bothered to question them. Iron Eyes Cody is one example, but Buffalo Child Long Lance and Mona Darkfeather have all found to be "imposters" and recent articles/books have documented their lives.

Winnebago historians have said that Young Deer was not a member of their tribe. Much of his early records are contradictory and he appeared to change identities throughout his life. The latest project points to someone of black/mulatto origin back east, where he started out and married Lillian.

Anonymous said...


You need to read/post this recent article on the true identity of James Young Deer. It appeared in the Bright Lights Film Journal May 2013 issue. Young Deer was really James Young Johnson from Washington, DC. See story:

Rob said...

I read it and posted it here:

Young Deer's identity revealed