The following is an excerpt from Starring Red Wing! by Linda M. Waggoner (November 2019). She is also the author of Fire Light: The Life of Angel De Cora, Winnebago Artist.
From Chapter 2: Ochsegahonegah at the
It was a clear and unseasonably warm evening in Philadelphia on March 2, 1889, as the assembly room of the Lincoln Institute on South Eleventh Street filled to capacity with “some of the most fashionable people of the city.” The crowd took their seats to watch a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore, but the philanthropically inclined among them came mostly for charity’s sake. Nearly everyone in the audience anticipated a novel experience, since the Lincoln Institute was not a theater. It was an Episcopal boarding school that had opened wide its Christian doors in 1882 to educate American Indian children. The evening’s true reformers believed in “the possibility of thoroughly civilizing the Indian.” Other attendees were not so sure. They agreed that instructing the nation’s Indian wards in industrial skills was a noble endeavor, but teaching them the fine arts was unrealistic. A Philadelphia Times reviewer challenged their lack of faith, pronouncing that American Indians had a gift for the stage. It was not just his opinion. Audience members also “expressed their surprise as well as their satisfaction at the excellent manner” in which the Indian pupils performed. Despite makeshift stage sets and an insufficient solo piano accompaniment, the reviewer deemed the performance equal to any given by “the whites of our city schools.” His ambiguous compliment disguised the diversity of the students, some of whom had white fathers or grandfathers who loved Indian women only briefly or for life.
The Lincoln Institute provided the female cast, while the affiliated Educational Home for Boys in West Philadelphia lent the production its cast of Indigenous males. Students hailed from across the country, including New York, California, and Alaska. These “dusky lads and maidens” won the reviewer’s highest acclaim in pursuing a “a new line of usefulness and accomplishments.” Their accomplishments were not just limited to the stage. Joshua Givens (Kiowa), a twenty-seven-year-old Educational Home student, was about to be ordained as a Presbyterian minister. Chosen to be the speaker for the event, Givens reiterated the hopes of the day’s Indian reform movement by confronting the infamous conviction attributed to Indian fighter General Philip Sheridan: “The theory, that there is no good Indian but a dead Indian is disproved by this presentation here to- night, in which Indian boys and girls have delighted and won the applause of a large, fashionable, intelligent and critical audience. They must be good to have done so well, and their achievement shows you, our white friends, that if you educate our people we will help you solve the Indian problem.”
The Times review provided the male cast members’ phonetically rendered Indian names that so fascinated the eastern elite. The male leads were Karoutowanen (Iroquois) as Captain Corcoran, Thonwen-jorem (Iroquois) as Sir Joseph Porter; Sha-go-wash (Chippewa) as Ralph Rackstraw, and Shaoanes (Iroquois) as Dick Deadeye. The report also gave the English names of the female leads, including Louisa Chubb or Chull (Mohawk) as Josephine, Nettie Hansell or Wanske (Modoc) as Buttercup, and Lucy Gordon or Wiciyaci (Sioux) as Cousin Hebe. The reviewer pointed out that Chubb, “a prepossessing girl of 16” who was gifted “with a more than fair soprano voice,” noticeably suffered stage fright. Despite her emotional state, Chubb’s enunciation was clear and “without a trace of alien accent.” “In fact,” the reviewer remarked, “the ear gave no intimation” that she or any of the other singers “were not of the Aryan race.”
Nettie Hansell, the darling of the Lincoln Institute, was the star of the performance. Her remarkable mezzo-soprano vocals captured everyone’s praise. An adorable child who was dressed in crimson silk and mistaken for Sioux (though her birth-order name marked her as Ho-Chunk) equally stole the show. “Ochsegahonegah, or Lillie St. Cyr, a pretty and phenomenally bright little Sioux girl of five years,” the reviewer wrote, “evoked hearty applause and many charming compliments.” It’s difficult to know if Lilian remembered the moment when fate put her on the pathway to a performance career. She did not leave an account of the evening or mention if the boarding school influenced her choice to become an actress. No one could have guessed that night—still five years before Indians were first captured on film—that the little girl in crimson silk would one day become the first “real Indian” motion picture star.
Scant documentation exists to account for Lilian’s years in Philadelphia, but her peers and teachers, the school’s administration and history, and the school’s prominent visitors during her stay provide a framework for understanding its influence. One of Lilian’s siblings enrolled her in the school when she was only four. She remained in Philadelphia until she was nine years old. Lilian must have learned during these crucial developmental years not only to obey authority figures outside her family but also to win their love.
Contemporaneous reformers viewed off-reservation Indian boarding schools like Hampton Institute in Virginia and the famous Carlisle Indian Industrial School in the town of Carlisle, outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, as the most effective means for assimilating Indian children into white society. Tragically, they also suppressed the reality that American Indian children suffered immeasurably when the government attempted to obliterate their familial and cultural ties in order to inculcate in them Anglo-Saxon or “Aryan” values. Some children and their parents actively resisted this attempt, while others, like Lilian and her family, viewed such policy as the only means to escape impoverished reservation life and to achieve success in the white world. Most, however, like Lilian, would question and confront this policy in their later years when the effects of historical trauma on America’s Indian population became chillingly apparent. By the 1910s government officials were unconvinced that adhering to a stringent policy of assimilation was making much of a difference. The so-called Indian problem, which reformers like those who attended Pinafore were determined to solve, resisted resolution.
Mary McHenry Bellangee Cox, the widow who established and ran both the Lincoln Institute and the Educational Home, was a power-house reformist. She was also fiercely dedicated to her female students, perhaps insuring that Lilian’s early experience of Indian boarding school was at least survivable. Lincoln Institute also offered Lilian exemplary role models like Nettie Hansell, the school’s best singer, and star pupils like Jane Eyre and Lucy Gordon, whom Cox nurtured to become teachers. Several Ho-Chunk girls, including the Frenchmans, whom Lilian’s brothers would marry, and the Tyndalls, family friends from the Omaha reservation, also attended the school. Lilian’s sisters Annie and Minnie were also role models, but, more importantly, they watched over her.
David St. Cyr was the oldest sibling left to care for Lilian when their father died because Julia was working in Iowa. David was unmarried and in charge of the family farm, so he had little time or female support to care for his younger siblings. A recruiter from the Lincoln Institute and the Educational Home, together known as “the Homes,” arrived at the Winnebago reservation in the fall of 1888, solving the dilemma. With David’s permission, the recruiter took the orphaned St. Cyrs, Annie (eighteen), Minnie (about seventeen), Louis (about eleven), and Lilian (four), and a few other reservation children on the long train ride from Sioux City, Iowa, to Philadelphia.