Liza Black is a citizen of Cherokee Nation and the author of Picturing Indians: Native Americans in Film, 1941-1960 (Nebraska, 2020). She works as an assistant professor of history and Native American and Indigenous studies at Indiana University.
Harry Smith, a Mohawk man from the Six Nations Reserve graces the cover of my book, yet he and his family hold no legal title to that image. They did not have to be consulted to use this image. Yet studios with massive assets hold license to thousands of archival photographs, and they refused to let me publish them in this book. I owned the photos, hired legal consultants to secure the licensing rights, even held a licensing agreement from the time when the book was under contract with another publisher, and my current publisher attempted negotiations with them as well. But all for naught. They gave permission by way of email, then followed that up with an email forbidding their reproduction in the book. In that way, the studios replicated the very same unequal treatment I document in the book.
I want my readers to see that Harry Smith and other Native American actors gave Americans tremendous entertainment value with very little in return. Harry Smith made the studios a small fortune, but died with just about nothing. Smith had over 100 film credits, with a commanding film presence even in the limiting roles he was offered. In spite of working non-stop for decades, generating tremendous wealth for the many studios where he worked, Harry struggled financially his entire life. In LA he rented a one-bedroom apartment near the corner of Sunset and Bronson. He passed away with massive legal debts, suffering from medical malpractice and dragging himself through a legal battle until the day he passed.
Like Harry Smith, Daniel Simmons, a member of the Yakama Nation, used Chief Yowlachie as a name that would define and present him as a Native American to casting agents and the American public. He too has over 100 film credits, but as far as I know never owned a home in Los Angeles. In fact, he rented a granny flat in East LA where he received his meager checks from the studio.
In this book, I draw attention outside the frame of the films we watch from this era and remind readers that the movie sets were workplaces. Although I was interested in all aspects of work on the sets, including makeup artists, costumers, and the food prep people, just to name a few, I look in particular at those playing Native American characters, especially Native people playing Native characters. This comprises both actors and extras. With actors, I am invoking union guidelines around speaking parts and time on screen, and Native actors never took the lead role. This meant that supporting or minor parts were the highest-level Native workers achieved at the time. Through studio records, I was able to document that there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of Native people who appeared in movies of the 1940s and 1950s.
To be clear, Picturing Indians is a behind the scenes look at movies of the 1940s and 1950s. Initially I believed the movies and the film sets ran in parallel tracks, separate and uninformed by each other. Yet the more I looked at the archival materials alongside the films themselves, the more I saw just how oppositional they are. What I mean by that is the films recreate American history in a particular way, usually with complicated plot devices for white characters, extremely simplistic ones for Native characters, and the constant of Indian violence and white innocence. Yet the materials from the sets where Native people worked tell something very different
For instance, an image from the set of Drum Beat of two Apache women being photographed taking a photograph of Charles Bronson in Indian costume, leaning back seductively in a chair, seems to be saying something about Native women finding Charles Bronson attractive. Yet this film is about hundreds of white soldiers and volunteers hunting down and surrounding Modocs then executing their leader.
Or another example comes from an image of an Apache male extra taking a photo of a beaming William Holden on the 1953 set of Escape from Fort Bravo. A studio photographer photographed this moment, staged or spontaneous, which seems to indicate pleasure and camaraderie, yet this film made by MGM tells a story about deeply divided northern and southern whites during the Civil War, who come together when faced with violence from Apaches.
The last example I will give of this disjuncture and perhaps the most stunning comes from the set of Far Horizons in 1955. We see tribal chairperson Herman St. Clair with a number of Eastern Shoshone men offering Donna Reed a fishing permit, invoking their sovereign fishing rights to give her the right to fish on their waters. They have maintained these rights by way of the Fort Bridger Treaty of 1868. Yet St. Clair took this action, perhaps nothing more than a stunt, on the set of a film that has nothing to do with tribal sovereignty. Instead the film tells the story of settler colonialism with Lewis and Clark as heroes.
Again, none of these images are in the book because Warner Bros. expressly forbid me from using them. Luckily, Universal Studios happily worked with me to use the images of Rock Hudson from Winchester ’73 because he wore a prosthetic nose for his role as a Native American man in the film that had been used by Boris Karloff in Tap Roots (Universal, 1948), then Dennis Weaver in Column South (Universal, 1953). The book shows that studios have perhaps always hired Native people to play Native people in the movies. The question, then, is when will we see a financially successful, mainstream film about Native people featuring Native actors?