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Historians reel over film with Native American Cast

Jordan Wright | 9/12/2012, 12:43 p.m.
Photo courtesy of Oklahoma Historical SocietyJordan WrightHow a silent...
Photo courtesy of Oklahoma Historical Society

How a silent film featuring an all-Native American cast was made, lost, discovered nearly a century later in shambles, then restored and shown to the cast’s descendants is one of the most fascinating stories in the annals of American filmmaking. “The Daughter of Dawn,” which had its world premiere in June at the deadCENTER Film Festival in Oklahoma City, may be the only all-Native cast silent film ever made.

In the autumn of 1919, Norbert Myles was hired to direct a film for Richard Banks, owner of the fledgling Texas Film Company. Banks, who had written the story for his new project, was looking to make an adventure film in Oklahoma.

He had met Myles a few years earlier on a California movie set and was impressed by the ambitious upstart. Myles, who had been a vaudevillian, a screen actor and sometime Shakespearean actor, had fallen out of favor in Hollywood and had turned to screenwriting and directing.

Banks drew on his 25 years of experience living among the Native Americans and his knowledge of what he called “an old Comanche legend,” to lend authenticity to the film. He decided to shoot on the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, a national reserve known for its mountains and grassy plains spread across 60,000 acres in Southwestern Oklahoma.

This was an attractive setting for several reasons, including the fact that in 1907 a program to reintroduce the nearly extinct bison to the Great Plains was launched. Under the auspices of the American Bison Society, 15 of these American icons, plucked from New York City’s Bronx Zoo, were sent by railway to grasslands in Oklahoma, and in little more than a decade, they flourished and were an enormous herd.

Banks must have also realized that shooting there would provide not only the perfect backdrop, but would also afford him an abundant source of American Indian talent.

For actors, Myles tapped into the local tribes—notably the Kiowa and Comanche, who were living on reservations near Lawton, Okla. This wildly ambitious project had an all-Native cast, just one cameraman, no costumes, no lighting, no props and wild buffalo. The American Indians, who had been on the reservation less than 50 years, brought with them their own tipis, horses and gear. Featured in the film were White Parker, Esther LeBarre, Hunting Horse, Jack Sankeydoty and Wanada Parker, daughter of Quanah Parker, a Comanche chief and one of the founders of the Native American Church movement. Among the 100 extras were Slim Tyebo, Old Man Saupitty and Oscar Yellow Wolf.

Myles ordered his cameraman to shoot buffalo chase scenes “from a pit so as to have all the buffalo . . . and Indians . . . pass directly over the top of the camera.”

To add verisimilitude, Myles incorporated the tribe’s tipis, horses, personal regalia and other artifacts, and shot scenes of the Comanches using cross-tribal Plains Indian sign language. He also shot scenes of tribal dancing while the women prepared buffalo for a celebratory meal.

The tribes’ participation in the film did not sit well with a certain assistant field matron assigned to the area by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to monitor the tribes’ activities.