Rediscovering ‘Daughter of Dawn’

Is Daughter of Dawn an Indigenous film?

Questions of authenticity and cultural representation often arise in Native American/Indigenous Cinema. Going back to Barry Barclay’s inception of the Fourth Cinema as Indigenous Cinema (in Barclay’s words, “with a capital ‘I'”), Daughter of Dawn

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Credit: Milestone Films

can be added to the category of Indigenous Cinema despite being made by white filmmakers because the film still carries with it the ‘essence’ of Indigenous life and outlooks due to the Kiowa and Comanche cast creating their own performances in their own environment.

 

From playing the role of cultural object in early ethnographic films, to their status as villains and savages within the Western genre, Indigenous people have had stories and images of their lives dictated by an industry whose point of reference has been the same “Noble Savage” image of Indians for over a century. A previously unreleased film from 1920 called The Daughter of Dawn, while made by white filmmakers, was the first, and still remains after over 100 years of cinema, the only movie to feature an all Native American cast.

There is little reason to believe that the Kiowa and Comanche actors who appeared in the film had complete control over how their cultures were portrayed on screen, but the film is important because it preserves moving images of tribes who were only two or three generations removed from people who had known the regions of modern-day Oklahoma and Kansas as completely free of white settlers. The film is important because it is one of the first to sympathetically feature the lives of non-white characters during an era of casually accepted racism in the film industry. The Daughter of Dawn can be used in comparison to later representations of Native Americans in film to show how images of Indigenous people have (or, have not) evolved in the film industry.

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In 1920, Oklahoma had already been sequestered as Indian Territory and had been part of the Union only thirteen years before Dawn was made. In the summer of 1920, filming took place in the Wichita Mountains in the western part of the state. The film featured a cast of 300 actors, all belonging to the Comanche and Kiowa tribes, none of whom had appeared in front of a movie camera before. Many arrived from relatively new government-created reservations within the state and brought with them the tipis, clothing, weapons and many other authentic props seen in the film.

The film was directed by a little-known filmmaker named Norbert A. Myles, who only has two other silent films to his directorial credit. He was a very prolific make-up artist until the late 1950s, according to IMDB, having worked on The Wizard of Oz, Stage Coach, The Thief of Baghdad, Duel in the Sun, and The Jack Benny Program, among a large other films and TV shows. A description of the film’s plot gives the impression that The Daughter of Dawn had epic period drama aspirations: There is a conflicted love story centered around the Daughter of Dawn (a Kiowa woman named Esther Lebarre), who is the daughter of the Kiowa chief (played by a non-actor named Hunting Horse). She is in love with a warrior named White Eagle, played by White Parker, who was the real-life son of Quanah Parker, the chief of the Comanche tribe. Conflict arises when another man vies for the attention of the Daughter of Dawn. There is also a hunting sequence in which we see a beautifully filmed gigantic herd of buffalo roaming freely in then-wide-open Southwestern Oklahoma.

The Daughter of Dawn suffered a fate similar to many forgotten and then rediscovered silent films, its damaged nitrate reels languishing in obscurity before they were rediscovered and restored. For reasons no researchers have been able to figure out, the film was never given an official release and was shown only one time in Los Angeles during the same year it was shot. The film also played in Joplin, Missouri the following year. All five reels of the 80-minute movie were heavily damaged and sat undiscovered until 2008, when a private investigator, who had inexplicably received the film as payment for a case, sold it to the Oklahoma Historical Society for five-thousand dollars. A restoration process began that same year and a musical score for the film was written by composer David Yeagley from the University of Oklahoma.

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The restoration of the sepia-colored film is striking in its visual clarity and depth  of field. With real locations, real Native Americans (one of the few Westerns ever made in which no white actors wear makeup or wigs in order to play Indians) and real props that the Kiowa and Comanche used during their everyday lives at the time, the film gives the viewer the strong impression that they are witnessing a rare glimpsing into the pre-American past.

Daughter of Dawn is now often viewed in the context of a document that has preserved a virtually vanished group of people of Oklahoma’s pre-settlement past. But given the film medium’s nature to obfuscate reality and Hollywood’s bad relationship with underrepresented groups of people, the authenticity of the images can only go so far. Questions about representation of non-whites by a virtually all-white film industry arise when considering the history of depictions of Native Americans in the cinema.

A better way to examine the intentions of Myles’ representations would be to compare The Daughter of Dawn to other representations of Native Americans during the silent era, especially in the early Biograph works of D.W. Griffith, whose films from this period, according to a Cinema Journal article dated in 2000, mainly consisted of stories about Indians. The article places Griffith’s sympathy for the Native American characters depicted in his early Biograph films within the context of condescending attitudes regarding America’s paternalistic attitude towards Indians. Of this attitude that Jay sees in Griffith’s films, he wrote about how “the apparently sympathetic representation of the Native American still adheres to the logic of white supremacy eventually enunciated in Birth of a Nation”.

Myles doesn’t share Griffith’s attitude towards Native Americans. Comparatively, there are no hints of the “Noble Savage” stereotype in Daughter of Dawn seen in most Westerns up to 1920. Overtly ugly representations of Indians, as seen in the early Griffith Biograph shorts, is less apparent because the film, consisting entirely of Native Americans, is not given the opportunity to present the Indian/White, or Civilized/Savage dichotomy that drives the plots (and violence) of many Westerns.

The Kiowa and Comanche actors’ very presence as themselves lend Daughter of Dawn the Indigenous “essence” that Barclay mentioned. Buffalo hunting, courtship and traditional ceremony mark the characters’ lives, all aspects of which were informed by the actors’ real-life surroundings. There is no threat of encroachment by settlers, no gun battles, no paternalistic tone in which Indians are treated as backwards people stuck in the distant past. The struggle for cultural survival and relevance in the modern world are won by the Kiowas’ and Comanche’s very presence in the movie, filmed entirely in their Wichita Mountains homeland. Until 1961’s modern Native tale The Exiles, in which the mostly Native American cast used their personal experiences and perspectives to create a narrative that situated Indians in the contemporary world, Daughter of Dawn represented the most successful negotiation between Indigenous people playing out versions of their lives and the predominantly non-Native medium through which they were captured.

Boiling down conflicts in Western films between Indians and whites as a battle between good and evil fuels the Savage VS Civilized Man conflict that perpetuates stereotypes about Native Americans

The people who appear in the film, none of whom had acted before, carry themselves with the slightly exaggerated mannerisms which may be attributed to the acting style of melodramatic silent film. It is important to place the film within a melodramatic context because, as Jacquelyn Kilpatrick points out in her book Celluloid Indians, the melodramatic form allows for the Good VS Evil conflict that is central silent Western films. Boiling down conflicts in Western films between Indians and whites as a battle between good and evil fuels the Savage VS Civilized Man conflict that perpetuates stereotypes about Native Americans. In her book, Kilpatrick paraphrases Peter Brooks’ The Melodramatic Imagination, in which he says that melodrama “deals with the world in Manichean terms of good and evil, with no mediating middle ground… In the case of the American Indian, that characterization could be evil, as in the bloodthirsty savage stereotype, or good, as in the noble savage”.

Despite the comparative closeness to accurate cultural representation, the actors were still forced to work in a predominantly white industry that, especially in the silent era, created genres that thrived on ugly racial stereotypes. Such depictions made non-whites seem villainous and simplistic. Kilpatrick laments, “Indians who were multidimensional human beings with faults and virtues were not to be found in the silent films that first introduced them to the American film audience”. With this quote in mind, it is poignant that The Daughter of Dawn had very few public screenings. With their broad acting flourishes, there is a hint of self-assuredness in the actors’ abilities to play representations and perhaps they were able to create their performances on their own terms.

While the film cannot be considered an authentic representation of a particular culture (can any film truly make such a claim?), it’s all-Native cast was given a small, if very brief, moment to play out a simplified version of their lives. Stereotypes and misrepresentation aside, the film deserves our attention because of its close link to the early American past at the beginning of the twentieth century.

A short video about the history and rediscovery of The Daughter of Dawn:

-Scott Pewenofkit, jr.


The Daughter of Dawn will be released on DVD by Milestone Films on July 19th, 2016. Currently, you can stream the film on Netflix.

The film was also inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2013.

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