One form of entertainment that is truly American is the Western. It portrays that wild, frontier attitude that drove Americans west in the 19th century. It is a genre that has been romanticized since The Great Train Robbery premiered in 1903.
Entertaining the masses was one goal of the Western, but, for many of us in the audiences, it also acted as a form of education. From them we learned to spot the good guy from the bad guy (hat color, level of cleanliness, name of horse), that shooting a gun from the hip is the only way to achieve an accurate shot from any distance, that all towns are suspicious of strangers, that a gunshot wound almost never exposes blood and that all Indian tribes are little more than savages who kill innocent women and children and are primitive, godless creatures whose souls are damned.
Oh, and that they are fun to shoot. Woo-hoo!
Growing up, nobody I knew ever questioned the accuracy of a character’s portrayal. Chewbacca acted how a Wookiee acts and Indiana Jones acted how an archaeologist acts, so it stood to reason that Indians in westerns acted how real Native Americans act.
Portraying themselves and their heritage as savage and worthy of extinction, I wondered how the Native American actors felt. Were they conflicted, at all? Was it a choice of an acting job versus eating cat food for dinner? As I began looking at the actors and their roles, a pattern began to emerge: many of the actors weren’t even Native Americans.
Below are a few actors who have played such iconic roles as Indian Chief and Indian. Try and guess which ones are Native American and which ones are not.
Ricardo Montalban played the character Indian Chief in the Clark Gable film Across The Wide Missouri. It’s hard to believe, but Ricardo Montalban, the debonair Latin lover, was actually born in Mexico City.
Is Mexico City the name of the government-sanctioned reservation he was raised on?
No, it is a city in Mexico.
Henry Brandon played the character Indian Chief in two John Ford films, The Searchers and Two Rode Together. Any convincing portrayal of the depravity and male supremacy could only be done by an actor who grew up amidst such harsh, almost inhuman surroundings.
Henry Brandon was, in fact, born in Germany. His ability to portray Indian Chief and even Dr. Fu Manchu was a commentary on his skill as an actor and that Germans were often mistaken for Native Americans. For years, the world saw Hitler as a disenfranchised member of the Sioux. True fact!
Joseph Calleia played the character of, you guessed it, Indian Chief in Disney’s Light In The Forest. He was angry, he hated the White Man and didn’t wear many clothes. When director Herschel Daugherty needed stark realism for his Indian antagonist, he knew he’d be a fool not to hire an actor who was born Giuseppe Maria Spurrin-Calleja. Why? Because, as with Germans, audiences naturally confused Italians with members of American tribes. In fact, Mussolini and Hitler first met when the they inadvertently shared a sweat lodge during a vision quest on their tribal land. True Fact!
Frank DeKova was, by far, one of the most prolific actors in terms of his seemingly endless resume of Native American characters. There was Chief Red Hawk, Chief Black Hawk, Chief Yellow Elk, Chief Yellow Wolf and Chief White Cloud to name just a few. This native New Yorker’s rough looks and mean scowl landed him roles as baddies including a gangland hitman, a ruthless Mexican officer, a slave trader and, so naturally, Indian chiefs.
When he landed a role as Chief Wild Eagle in television’s western spoof F-Troop, he showed the world that not only were Indians often scary and hateful, but they were also a source of hilarity.
Abraham Sofaer also had a long list of roles including Chief White Buffalo, Chief Last Full Moon, Chief Cha-la-te and, on at least one television show, Chief Inspector.
This Rangoon-born actor was actually Jewish and not, as he might have you believe, a real Native American.
So, to sum up, Germans, Italians, Jews and Mexicans are interchangeable with any Native American role a film or television show might need.
To think of all those immigrants passing through Ellis Island who had no idea that their arrival in the land of opportunity guaranteed them acting work in any Western picture.
My Italian ancestors actually had the following conversation, while waiting in line to have their last name Anglicized by an American Immigration Officer.
Ancestor 1 – I cannot-a believe we are-a in-a thees great-a country. I already-a got-a offered a role in-a the moving-a pictures.
Ancestor 2 – That’s-a great-a news. What-a kind of a part did-a you get?
Ancestor 1 – With my-a looks, they said I could-a play a convincing Indian Chief. I get to wear-a the braided hair, have on-a the war paint and do-a the woop-woop with-a my mouth.
Ancestor 2 – I bet-a you could also get da roles of-a the gangsters.
Ancestor 1 – Whassa matter with-a you, eh? I don’t-a want to perpetuate any-a stereotypes. It gives-a people the wrong idea about us. I’ll stick-a with the Indian-a bad guys, thank-a you very much.
Jay Silverheels (Tonto) was a very rare exception to the rule. A real Indian portraying an Indian in a positive light? How was this possible?
Answer: He was Canadian.
Like Canadians know anything about making authentic Westerns.