America in Progress

America in Progress
America in Progress

Saturday, October 7, 2017

October 7-8, 2017: Indigenous Performers in Popular Culture



[Later this month, the sixth and final season of my favorite current TV show (and one of my all time-favs as well), Longmire, drops on Netflix. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied a handful of Longmire’s many fascinating characters, leading up to this special weekend post on indigenous performers in popular culture!]
On three performers who help us trace the evolution of 20th and 21st century American popular culture.
1)      Nipo Strongheart (1891-1966): I could very easily write this whole blog post (and probably a whole blog series) about Strongheart, the Yakama artist and activist who began performing with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show as a child (his father was likely a white performer for the show while his mother was a Yakama Native American, although these biographical details seem ambiguous), launched his adult career giving presentations on Native American culture for the YMCA War Work Council during World War I, became a very successful lecturer and performer on the Lyceum and Chautauqua circuits, and served as a technical advisor for both silent and talking films. Moreover, while on the lecture circuit Strongheart gathered numerous signatures on petitions advocating for Native American citizenship, an effort that helped produced the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act that finally allowed Native Americans to become US citizens. Quite simply, for all these reasons you can’t tell the full story of Native American or American culture and history in the early 20th century without including Strongheart.
2)      Jay Silverheels (1912-1980): Strongheart continued to advise films throughout the 1950s, but that decade also witnessed the rise to popular prominence of Canadian amateur athlete turned actor Jay Silverheels (born Harold Preston Smith on the Six Nations Reserve of Ontario). After a successful 1930s career as a traveling lacrosse player and boxer, Silverheels landed a series of film roles in the 1940s and 50s, including in such prominent, diverse films as Humphrey Bogart’s Key Largo (1948) and Jimmy Stewart’s Broken Arrow (1950). But it was his role as Tonto, stalwart friend and companion of the Lone Ranger on the 1949-1957 television series (and in two spinoff films, The Lone Ranger [1956] and The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold [1958]), that made Silverheels one of the century’s best-known native performers. Like the show’s Western form itself, Tonto straddled the line between serious and silly, respectfully complex and stereotypically simplified. But compared to the brief, often one-note appearances by native performers in many Western films or shows, Tonto played a central role throughout the show’s run, giving Silverheels a chance to invest this character with a depth and humanity that were striking and remain hugely influential half a century later.
3)      Graham Greene (1952- ): Born on the same Ontario Six Nations Reserve as Silverheels, Graham Greene has gone on to enjoy a lengthy and impressively varied career in both film and television (including as a Canadian sheriff in two episodes of Murder, She Wrote!). I would highlight three particular roles as demonstrating both his breadth of talent and the evolution of parts for native actors in the late 20th century: Kicking Bird, the 19th century Sioux leader who becomes a vital friend to Kevin Costner’s John Dunbar in Dances with Wolves (1990); Walter Crow Horse, a 1970s Sioux tribal policeman who starts as a frenemy of Val Kilmer’s FBI agent in Thunderheart (1992) but ends the film [SPOILER ALERT!] as a crucial co-protagonist; and Malachi Strand, a disgraced Cheyenne police chief turned criminal mastermind who has served as one of the chief villains on the last few seasons of Longmire. That I could have picked countless other Greene roles and performances as well is a good bit of the point: thanks in part to the groundbreaking work of performers like Strongheart and Silverheels, as well as to their own talent, indigenous actors like Greene have become a central and unremarkable (in the very best sense) part of American popular culture.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other Native American texts or images you’d highlight?

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