Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The NFR Project #23: 'White Fawn's Devotion'

The moment of truth in "White Fawn's Devotion."
White Fawn’s Devotion: A Play Acted by a Tribe of Red Indians in America
Dir: James Young Deer
Here again we have a film included in the National Film Registry not for its inherent virtues, but for what it represents – the earliest surviving film made by a Native American.

Except it wasn’t it. Oh, but wait, then it was again. The vagaries of historical revelation means that even the National Film Registry listing on this film is out of date and inaccurate, three years after a major discovery concerning its director, James Young Deer.

James Young Deer was a self-proclaimed member of Nebraska’s Winnebago tribe. With his wife Lillian St. Cyr, aka Princess Red Deer, he entertained crowds with his own version of a Wild West show (this was in the heyday of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West touring extravaganzas). When France’s Pathe Brothers opened an American studio in Jersey City, Young Deer was tapped to produce a string of profitable Westerns.

“White Fawn’s Devotion” is cribbed, as many films of the day were, from the successful 1905 stage melodrama, “The Squaw Man,” which features what used to be called “miscegenation” – the intimate relations of two people from different races, once widely considered a crime.

In “White Fawn’s Devotion,” the white male protagonist, living happily in the wilderness with his wife and child, is told he has received a huge legacy and must go Back East to get it. His wife, fearing he would never return, stabs herself. The man discovers his prone wife, bends over her, picks up the knife – and the kid comes in and rats Dad out as her murderer to the tribal chief.

After some obligatory chasing, the man is captured and brought to a chopping block at the chief’s feet (you can see the bound actor squirming around surreptitiously, helping his captors get him up on the stump). Somehow, it’s incumbent on the child to slit his father’s throat – as little-known a detail of aboriginal jurisprudence if there ever was one. Suddenly, White Fawn, alive after all, leaps into the center of the frame, preventing her beloved’s death a la Pocahontas.

The filmmaking and acting is crude, below the standards of the day. Indians are portrayed with a smidge of sympathy, but they are feathered plot devices at best. Young Deer could be accused of cheaply exploiting his heritage – except that he was really James Young Johnson, a black man from Washington D.C. (Does this then make him the first African American film director?)

America is the kingdom of personal reinvention, and Johnson undoubtedly found himself more in demand as a Native American than as an African American, given the state of America’s treatment of black people at the time. Similar techniques for overcoming prejudicial barriers took place in professional baseball, where the black players who could get away with it masqueraded as Cubans or Hispanics.

This would be irony enough, if it wasn’t for Angela Aleiss’s remarkable and fascinating feat of historical sleuthing, published in Bright Lights Film Journal in April 2013 (read it here). In tracking down the truth about Johnson, Aleiss dug deeper and found that, in fact, Johnson was descended from members of Delaware’s Nanticoke tribe. Thus, Johnson/Young Deer was, quite unbeknownst to him, what he pretended to be – an Indian.

Young Deer’s career went off the tracks when he was accused of sexual improprieties and left the country. He eventually returned, but the vogue in Indians had passed and he spent the rest of his life in obscurity, and was not remembered as an especially nice person.

For better or worse, he’s responsible for this landmark – a thoroughly phony Native American scenario featuring real Native Americans, directed by a phony Native American who didn’t know he really was one. There have been more convoluted show-biz tales, but not many.

The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: ‘Little Nemo.’

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