CHAPTER ONE Early Trailblazers During his three-year reign at Pathé Frères West Coast Studio, James Young Deer displayed an incredible burst of creativity. The filmmaker oversaw the production of close to 150 silent Westerns for the French- based studio, once the world’s largest production company with an Amer- ican studio in Edendale in Los Angeles. From 1911 to 1914 Young Deer was its general manager and had previously earned a reputation as an actor who had worked alongside notable silent screen directors D. W. Griffith, Fred J. Balshofer, and Mack Sennett. But Young Deer became the world’s first Native American director and the scenario writer for many of his films. His short one- and two-reel films often showed idyllic Indian love triangles or tragic tales of an Indian’s heroic sacrifice while others would reveal rather bold characters.1 Young Deer’s first film at Pathé’s West Coast Studio was a typical example: In The Yaqui Girl (1910), an Indian woman discovers that a rival has snatched her Mexican lover, and when he’s shot she defiantly announces that no one can ever claim him again. At 5 feet 3.25 inches and weighing 114 pounds, Young Deer was hardly the image of a matinee idol. He had brown hair and brown eyes with defective lower teeth and a scar on his right wrist and right neck. For many years he boasted of a full-blooded Winnebago heritage: His birth- place became Dakota City, Nebraska, and his father was “Green Rainbow” from the Winnebago Reservation. He claimed he attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, the first off-reservation Indian boarding school.2 None of these assertions were true. Military records instead revealed that his real name was James Young Johnson, a “mulatto” child born about April 1, 1878, in Washington, DC.3 In fact, Young Deer’s
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