7/4/20: The Real and the Would-be

By Fred Muenz

Whenever we think of “western movies”, the name of director John Ford must immediately come to mind. From his 1920’s silent films through the 1950’s, Ford directed a host of classic westerns: STAGECOACH (1939); DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK (1939); MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946); FORT APACHE (1948); SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949); RIO GRANDE (1950) and THE SEARCHERS (1956). In these films andothers, he almost single-handedly rewrote American Western history, with plots showing tensions between white settlers and Indians, and falsely portraying Native-Americans as uncivilized and violent.

Here are the stories of three civilized Indians…or, in reality, two real Indians and a would-be Indian, who defy Ford’s stereotype.

Harold J. Smith aka Jay Silverheels was born in May, 1912 on the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve in Ontario, Canada. His father, Alexander George Edwin Smith was a decorated officer in the Canadian Army who was wounded in World War I. His grandfather was chief of the Mohawk tribe. One of eleven children, young Harold was an outstanding athlete who became a Golden Gloves boxer and a semi-pro lacrosse player (he was later inducted into the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame). While playing with a touring lacrosse team making a stop in Los Angeles in 1937, his athleticism impressed actor Joe E. Brown, who encouraged him to do a screen test. His movie career began as an extra, bit player and stuntman, while still using his real name. By the late 1940’s, he had changed his name to Silverheels (a nickname from his lacrosse days) and was appearing in films with such stars as Tyrone Power, Humphrey Bogart, James Stewart and Glenn Ford. His greatest fame, and the role which left him type-cast, was to come on television, in 1949, as Tonto, sidekick to the Lone Ranger. By the time the series ended in 1957, changing attitudes had left many people feeling that the Tonto character was demeaning to Native Peoples, and he was forever associated with the role. His acting roles diminished and he was forced to work part-time as a salesman to feed his family. In 1976, he suffered the first of a series of strokes and died in March, 1980. Jay Silverheels was 67. His ashes were buried on the Six Nations Reserve.  

Actor, musician, poet and author Geswanouth Slahoot, aka Chief Dan George, was born in July, 1899, on the Tsliel-Waututh Nation Reserve in British Columbia, Canada. His English name was Dan Slaholt, which was changed to Dan George when he entered a mission boarding school at age 5, where use of his native language was forbidden. After leaving school, he spent much of the rest of his working life as a longshoreman, construction worker, school bus driver and itinerant musician until 1959, when at age 60 he auditioned for and won a role in a Canadian television series. More television, stage and film appearances followed over the next years until, in 1971, he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in LITTLE BIG MAN (1970). During those years he had been elected Chief of the Tsliel-Waututh Nation, also known as the Burrard Indian Band, and the fame which came as a result of his acting allowed him to become an influential speaker and writer on the rights of native peoples of North America. He is credited with escalating the political activism of Canadian native peoples and increasing pro-native sentiment among non-natives. After his death in September, 1981 at age 82, books of his poetry were posthumously published and became best sellers. In 2008, Chief Dan George was featured on a Canadian postage stamp. As part of the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, actor Donald Sutherland recited part of a Dan George poem.

Born in April, 1904, Espera Oscar de Corit aka Iron Eyes Cody, was the son of Italian immigrants who ran a grocery store.in Gueydon, Louisiana, where he grew up. Espera and his brothers were still small children when their parents divorced and their father left for Texas. Their mother quickly remarried and had five more children with her new husband. As teenagers the three brothers left for Texas where they joined their father. After his death in 1924, the brothers moved to California where they changed their name to Cody and found work as movie extras. While his brothers moved on to other lines of work, Espera stayed on and soon found himself in larger roles, almost always in westerns and usually playing an Indian. The roles he played slowly became his off-screen life as well. His film wardrobe became his daily clothing, including the braided wig, fringed feathers and beaded moccasins. He now claimed that his father was a Cherokee, while his mother was a Cree, and changed his place of birth. In 1953, he began appearing on TV, while continuing his movie roles. His wife, Bertha, was an Indian and together they adopted two Indian sons while spending decades promoting Native American causes. In the 1970’s, he appeared as the “Crying Indian”, shedding a tear in the “Keep America Beautiful” public service announcements. After a career including over 200 movie roles and scores of television credits, Iron Eyes Cody died in Los Angeles in January, 1999. He was 94.

MORE SILVER SCREEN MEMORIES NEXT WEEK.

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