An independent scholar of Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) history explores the life and work of the first Native American actress, Red Wing (1884-1974).
Born Lilian St. Cyr on the Ho-Chunk Reservation, Red Wing came of age at a time when the U.S. government refused to recognize Native Americans as full citizens. Orphaned at age 4, she was sent to “the Homes,” a boarding school in Philadelphia dedicated to preparing Native American children for lives as servants of the “Great [White] Father.” It was here that she first began to perform for white audiences fascinated by the culture of the “noble savage.” She graduated from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in 1902 and worked for a time as a domestic in Washington, D.C., and then married James Johnson. The couple went to upstate New York in 1906, where the author hypothesizes that St. Cyr sold her beadwork to tourists caught up in the “Indian craze” sweeping the country. That fall, they went to New York City, where they began crafting theatrical personas for themselves. St. Cyr became Princess Red Wing, and Johnson became Young Deer, in part to hide his African American background. Red Wing landed her first role in the musical Pioneer Days. After that, the couple performed in Wild West vaudeville shows until 1909, when then began working for East Coast–based film companies. They moved to California soon after, and Red Wing worked with screen legends Tom Mix and Max Sennett, and her husband made films. Over the next half-decade, the actress honed the Indian princess role—which Waggoner astutely points out also supported racist stereotypes of the faithful, self-sacrificing Native woman—to perfection. At the height of her fame, she starred in two silent-era classics: Cecil B. DeMille’s The Squaw Man (1914) and Donald Crisp’s Ramona (1916). Illustrated with black-and-white photographs, this lively biography pays long-overdue tribute to a forgotten star of the silent era while celebrating Native American contributions to the motion picture industry.
A well-researched, sharp biography.