Representing Indians: Native American Actors on Hollywood’s Frontier

By: Nicholas G. Rosenthal

Responding to the growth of the film industry, American Indians moved to Los Angeles for acting jobs throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Like other peoples of color, they balanced the limitations of entertaining a popular audience with the benefits performing could provide for themselves and their communities.
      ONE DAY IN 1936, the Cheyenne Indian and veteran actor Richard Davis Thunderbird left his home in Los Angeles and joined director and movie star Buck Jones to scout movie locations throughout the American Southwest. Shortly thereafter the pair began the production of For the Service (Buck Jones, 1936), a western tale that followed a group of U. S. soldiers chasing a gang of outlaws. A press release by Universal Studios claimed that Thunderbird, who appeared as Chief Big Bear, had “exchanged war paint for grease paint” and “traded his wigwam for a Hollywood bungalow” to take part in the film.1 But, as often was the case with studio dispatches, this was not true. At the time of the film’s production, Thunderbird had lived in Los Angeles for over twenty years as an actor and technical advisor for western movies. He continued to do so until he passed away at the age of 80, in 1946.21
 Figure 1. Cast and Crew Members at Inceville in Santa Monica taking a break from filming to pose for a group photograph, circa 1915. Photo in author’s possession.  
      In fact, Thunderbird was just one of the many American Indians who traveled to Los Angeles in the first half of the twentieth century to take part in the development of the motion picture industry. Beginning with the relocation of film studios from the East Coast in the 1910s, Hollywood producers and directors recruited Indians as actors, stunt persons, and technical advisors. Native people of various backgrounds responded enthusiastically, recognizing these jobs as opportunities and alternatives to reservation poverty and low-skilled labor. For many Indian actors, working in Hollywood became part of a larger entertainment career centered on displays and performances of Indian identity, Indian culture, and popular ideas about Indianness. While in Los Angeles, Hollywood Indians also organized communities and settled into the urban milieu. In the process, they helped build the motion picture industry and shape what became one of the preeminent cities of the modern American West.2
      Yet while Indians found opportunities on the Hollywood “frontier,” they also faced limitations. Indian actors frequently obtained minor parts, but rarely starring roles. Even as movie extras, they earned lower pay than non-Indians and had little job security. In addition to this day-to-day exploitation, Indian actors helped Hollywood invent a mythic West that glorified the conquest and subordination of North America’s indigenous populations. Moreover, almost without exception, the Indian characters portrayed by Indian actors conveyed unflattering portraits of Native people and distorted Indian history and culture. With little control over the content of western films, Indians working in Hollywood often confronted the stark choice between participating in these cultural productions and finding another way to make a living.. . .

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