Hollywood Indian


On Film


Image from D. W. Griffith’s film The Squaw’s Love, 1911

At the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth, a young Abanaki Native American woman named Margaret “Soaring Dove” “Dark Eyes” Tahamont moved from her home in the Adirondacks across the country to Los Angeles to play in the moving pictures. She was born in Indian Lake, New York, where her extended family—a mixed group of Abanaki, Oneida, and Anglo ancestry—had been well established since the town’s founding, owning substantial land, running an inn for visitors to the region from New York City, and employing many town residents as laborers.

Margaret, born Camp, judging from all photographs of her Indian Lake family, was raised in the costume of any white northerner. Her cousin Emma, near Margaret’s age, can be seen wearing a high loose bun, plush woven hats, and carefully tailored dresses covering from the high neck to the wrist, puffed at the sleeves, pintucked across the bodice, and lightly trimmed with lace.

But Margaret moved to Los Angeles to perform as an Indian in plays, Indian hobby societies, and early silent films. She now wore long braids, leather, beaded headbands, moccasins, and performed under the name Dove Eye. Her husband Elijah Tahamont, or Dark Cloud (also Abanaki, from Quebec), had been acting in silent films made in the Adirondack region—what would later be known as the “eastern Westerns”—including at least a few with soon-to-be famed director D. W. Griffith, and when eastern production companies began to move west to join nascent Hollywood corporations, the Tahamonts went along. Elijah, as Dark Cloud, played in over thirty titles; Margaret in at least five silent shorts, and likely more—the idea of preserving film and film records still lying a bit ahead on the horizon.

What seems to have been Margaret’s first movie was called An Indian Love Story. In the short, a weird-sounding little tale of two Indian couples who swap mates, Dove Eye’s romantic rival was played by the much more prominent early silent film actress Mona Darkfeather, who was originally billed by her production company as full-blooded Blackfoot. But in a 1914 interview, Darkfeather came half clean: she was “descended from an aristocratic Spanish family who came to this country many years back,” she said. “Spanish and not Sioux.” Richard Willis, Hollywood jack-of-all-trades and her interrogator, sighed. The actress took the cue: “‘Yes, too bad, isn’t it?’ Mona’s tone was sympathetic but there was sarcasm in those brilliant black eyes of hers…” In fact, it would be known years later that Darkfeather’s real name was Josephine Workman, and she was Anglo as most any distant cousin of the Queen.

* * *

Recently at the New Yorker Culture Desk, David Denby—like Jason Bailey at the Flavorwire, and others—lamented the fact that Gore Virbinski’s The Lone Ranger, the sixth big screen retelling of an old, racist story—first brought to life on radio and later via a decade of television—had even been made. Denby noted Johnny Depp’s shallow attempts to reanimate Tonto the Comanche sidekick with some nuance—“He does deep mystical talk and tragic-Indian talk and then makes deadpan remarks”—and appropriately described the actor as playing the famous role in “white face,” which Depp does literally with paint, and, we may say, literally with his own white skin beneath it.

Native American characters in Hollywood have of course been played in “white face” from the beginning. Indian identity was performed as white Americans imagined it, most interestingly by real Native Americans and ethnic impostors. For an actress like Margaret Tahamont, the performance required first peering at oneself from a white view—in a sense donning a white mask through which to look. That mask was then replaced by another—a red one, not of an Abanaki woman as she really was, but of an Indian. The work of an impostor like Mona Darkfeather was less complex, but doubtless affected the performance of real Native Americans actors: playing an Indian role “correctly” must have been a negotiation between these positions, along, of course, with the opinions of openly white actors and directors.

That the historic cinematic vision of the Indian is delusional is widely accepted and permeates far into pop criticism—though filmic depictions, especially in the silent era, varied more than is broadly thought. That the fraudulent Euro-American creation of the Indian on screen—the Hollywood Indian—is entangled with real Native American identity, and with American identity itself, is less understood.

Fictional Indians had already taken deep root in the American psyche by the advent of film. James Fennimore Cooper’s leatherstocking novels and the Indian plays that gained broad popularity in the 1820s and 30s provide easy examples of noble, savage, and disappearing Native tropes far before early directors like D. W. Griffith laid the same stories and themes in silver. The imitation, and thus necessarily revision, of Indian identities—by both whites and Native Americans—was already a long tradition by the time Margaret and Elijah Tahamont moved to Hollywood. But visual mimetic performances were frozen for the first time in film, giving imitations a type of solidity and authority simply in their record and making them more replicable.

Historian Philip J. Deloria, in his book Playing Indian—which analyzes the many ways white Americans have enacted versions of Native identity to help to forge their own—writes, “In the early twentieth century, Indian people participated in the making of Indian Others as never before.” He considers early twentieth century Native American figure Charles Alexander Eastman, who was, in Deloria’s words, “inclined to promote a positive, antimodernist understanding of Indian cultures,” authoring ten books for white audiences, and writing “Indian Lessons” for American kids, many of which he collected in 1914 as Indian Scout Talks: A Guide for Boy Scouts and Campfire Girls. Deloria writes:

“Eastman sought to take the primitivist value attached to exterior, antimodern Indian Others and reattach it to real, modern Native Americans. […] When Eastman donned an Indian headdress, he was connecting himself to his Dakota roots. But he was also—perhaps more compellingly—imitating non-Indian imitations of Indians. As he reflected an American image back at American youth, he simultaneously challenged and redirected other, negative stereotypes about Indians. But Eastman’s Indian mimicry invariably transformed his construction of his own identity—both as a Dakota and as an American. […] By channeling both a Dakota past and an American-constructed Indian Other through his material body[…] Eastman made it ever more difficult to pinpoint the cultural locations of Dakotas and Americans, reality and mimetic reality, authenticity and inauthenticity.”

Thus Native American actors like Margaret and Elijah Tahamont played Indian identity as seen through a white lens as they were helping to establish what that identity would be in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Where did “accurate” Indian behavior and culture start and stop if not with Native Americans? What was “authentic” now?

* * *

In the first film production of The Lone Ranger—an episode in a Western series, released in 1938—a young actor named Iron Eyes Cody had a bit part, as the “Bullet-bringer.” He would go on to become the most recognizable “noble Indian” actor in cinema to date, playing in over a hundred films and scores of television shows and advertisements, depicting Arapaho, Apache, Sioux, Cherokee, Ute, Osage, Blackfoot, and Shoshone people. In perhaps his most famous role, Cody played the “Crying Indian” in the TV ad for the 1970s anti-pollution campaign “Keep America Beautiful.” In it, he canoes through floating garbage, past industrial tankers, overlooks a litter strewn highway packed with cars, and sheds a single tear for all that has been lost. 

Cody claimed Cherokee identity, from Oklahoma, and Hollywood was clearly glad to have him. His authenticity was key to the films he was involved in: he told directors what an Indian did and did not do—for example, “Indians don’t cry” (clearly bending for the PSA)—taking the formal role of “Technical Advisor and Indian costumes” for some productions, and publishing a book on “Indian hand signals.” Following “Keep America Beautiful,” he became, as scholar Edward Buscombe puts it “a kind of roving ambassador for Indian people” shaking hands in photographs with Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Pope John Paul.

In 1996, however, an investigation by scholar Angela Aleiss published in the Times Picayune found that Cody was in fact Espera Oscar di Corti, a second generation Italian-American, born in Louisiana in 1904. Cody denied the report for the rest of his life, but it was based on pretty firm evidence: baptism and census records, interviews with family members he left behind.

Cody’s wife, who died before Aleiss’s investigation, was a real American Indian. She was Bertha Parker, a type of writer and anthropologist, and the grand-daughter of Margaret and Elijah Tahamont, or, as you now know they were called in Hollywood, Dove Eye and Dark Cloud.

Hollywood, and the media generally, largely ignored the story of Cody’s fraud, which was clearly an embarrassment for the industry, and an embarrassment for Americans in general: When it came down to it, we didn’t even know what an American Indian looked like. When Cody died in 1999, his New York Times obituary mentioned merely that the actor’s “heritage was questioned.” The Los Angeles Times ignored the counterfeit entirely, describing Cody as Cherokee and Cree—the identity he had pulled from thin air.

That his life story was a sham also went strangely unacknowledged by some in the Native American community. As Edward Buscombe’s book Injuns! reports, Kathleen Whitaker, the former chief curator of the Southwest Museum, where Cody’s wife Bertha worked, responded to the revelation: “What difference does it make? Iron Eyes brought forth the true essence of what being American Indian is all about.” Bonnie Paradise, former executive director of the American Indian Registry of the Performing Arts, told the same newspaper that Cody “lived and breathed an Indian lifestyle. In that sense, at least, no one can call him an impostor.” It’s worth noting that Paradise herself was a recurring “native American consultant” for the television series Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.

According to Buscombe and The BFI Companion to the Western, from 1910 to 1960—for broad purposes the first fifty years of film production in the United States—between one fifth and one quarter of all feature films were westerns. Roughly 7,000 American Westerns were made in the twentieth century, and a significant portion portrayed Indians. In River of Shadows: Eadward Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, author Rebecca Solnit writes, “[T]he movies were obsessed with the West, that fiction of authenticity, that fantasy of gritty reality. The fluidity of identity that had always been a hallmark of the American West finally came home to roost and to feather it nest in Hollywood, for the medium of cinema encouraged it as nothing else had.”

It is still little known today that the most recognizable Noble Indian actor in film history was a fraud. But the fraudulent character of the capital “I” Indian identity in Hollywood is not only known—explicit enough for the newest Lone Ranger production to be built upon a wink—but an element of American identity. The fact that Iron Eyes Cody was white is peculiarly fitting. It allows a new avenue for the myth we preferred: Modern Americans—as any audience would—imagined themselves the good guys in the movie already. As the understanding of just who had been noble and righteous in the American west shifted, and Native Americans took that role in accepted history and on screen, a white man playing, and quite concretely controlling, Indian roles, has the interesting side effect of retaining the crown of honor, through a white representative, for audiences who previously sided with the cowboys.  

Both Iron Eyes Cody and Dark Cloud are buried in a famed Los Angeles cemetery called Hollywood Forever. 

* * *

For years, Johnny Depp has claimed Native American ancestry, vaguely. In an interview with James Lipton in 2002 he said that his great-grandmother “had a lot of Cherokee blood.” In 2011 he told Inside Movies that this grandmother grew up “Cherokee or maybe Creek,” and in a June interview this year with CBS Sunday Morning he said “either Cherokee or Chickasaw or Creek or something.” To NPR, in the run up to Ranger, he amended, “Could have been Cherokee, could have been Creek, could have been Choctaw,” and, “It was always something that I always felt very proud to have.” 

Readily available records show that Depp likely has no Native heritage, and certainly not three generations back where he claims it. Some amateur genealogists have stated online that the actor is related to a Powhatan “Princess,” Nicketti Opechancanough, a figure said to have been the daughter of Chief Opechancanough, making her the cousin of Pocahontas. But there is no record of any person with this name, no record of any child of the seventeenth century chief, and Powhatan expert Helen C. Rountree writes that “no scholarly evidence exists that Princess Nicketti ever lived.” Still, there are countless online threads devoted to discussion of her descendants and many family trees drawn with Nicketti near the top.

That Depp makes his claim so loosely—“or something”—is both common in Indian ancestry claims and of course fitting for a Hollywood story. Just as in Mona Darkfeather’s sarcastic look to Richard Willis, Depp’s words belie what perhaps we should have assumed in the first place: The facts of the matter are hardly the matter. The point is that there is a national story that Depp may take a slice of. The point is that he has a story.

The American identity is inextricable from make believe, from Hollywood dramas, from myth. Nationalism and myth are always intertwined, but here the very concept of myth is integral. This is the land of dreams: their pursuit, their realization, and through Hollywood, their creation and distribution. The hub of the moving picture industry was called Tinseltown for its artifice, but we can’t explain our character without the narratives created there. 

That “Nicketti” is not a Powhatan name, that the Powhatan did not have princesses, are facts. But the fantasy that American and Native American identities flow fluidly one into the other is part of our history. Likewise, the fraud of Indian representation on film is not part of our history simply as fraud, but as actual lived experience—visions viewed with our eyes—and now as cultural memory. The fraud is conscious and subconscious. The delusion itself is part of who we are.

Philip Deloria writes: “The idea that one could make a self-identity through an anarchic approach to meaning has been a cherished American possession from the nation’s earliest moments, and it has been frequently played out in Indian costume.” He says that Americans gave themselves the freedom to reject “politics, society, language, meaning itself,” and this includes the freedom to reject history. Understanding this self-creation becomes very strange—lined with intellectual speed bumps—when we consider the American histories we created in Hollywood—a geographic and conceptual place now possessing its own history, one that lies tangled with the broader national narrative.

Depp recently said in interview, discussing Ranger, “It occurred to me, in a weird way, certain clichés must be embraced for a millisecond, to have the audience understand.” Really, this move, arguably held by Depp as Tonto for a bit longer than a millisecond, allows the audience to reenter the widely disseminated visual world that came before, gives them tacit permission to reopen that old imagined reality, and layer it with something new—in this case that something new is simply a portrait of the old, with a blunt, rather impenetrable superego hovering by, not unlike the dead crow Depp chose to affix to his head while playing a Comanche. The portrait is self-conscious, but of what, really?

We are fully aware as a culture that Native Americans were not and are not who they were on screen, but we keep the old notions, and overlay something like a fine print advisory: these images not based in truth. But “truth” would reside within scare quotes—after all, this is the realm of art. When aesthetic truth is performed in historical costume, when historical truth is performed in costumes that turn a profit, and each have been for some time, the distinct questions, “What is authentic?” “What is accurate?” “What is morally sufficient?” become quite difficult to unravel.

The new national fantasy as related to white conquest of the continent is not that Hollywood Indians accurately portrayed Native Americans. It is that we can “know” the truth without giving anything up. And in fact, it may be the case that we are unable to do otherwise. 

In the 1930s, a man who went by the name Grey Owl and claimed Apache identity authored a few best-selling books and became something similar to the “roving ambassador” that Iron Eyes Cody would become decades later. And Grey Owl was also an impostor, found out after his death. In a 1999 fictional film based on the real man’s life, Grey Owl, in the form of Pierce Brosnan, approaches a powwow-type gathering with trepidation: he has admitted his fraud to some. There a visiting chief greets him in stoic manner and peers silently into Grey Owl’s face. After some time, he crumbles into a chuckle; increasingly loud, almost maniacal jolts of laughter shoot from his throat, and all the other Indians in the large tipi join him. Then, the chief speaks his lines, scripted by the film’s white screenwriter:

“Men become what they dream,” he says. “You have dreamed well.”

Dubious claims, both.

Katie Ryder is a New York-based writer and a contributing editor for Guernica. Her work has been published in Salon, the Los Angeles Review of Books,, and elsewhere. On Twitter @katiehryder