How Hollywood portrayed Native Americans before and after 1992

Honoring the 30th anniversary of “The Last of the Mohicans” . . . We will be looking at two epic movies, both which took place during the French and Indian War (Seven Years War).

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner

The median age of United States is now about 38.5 years.   That means that the majority of its citizens have become accustomed to personal computer, cellular phones and internet all or most of their lives. There is something that is now taken for granted . . . Native American actors playing Native American characters in movies and having substantial speaking parts.

It was not always that way.  At the beginning of the 20th century,  Caucasians, generally of Eastern Mediterranean ethnic heritage, were pasted with artificial sun tan salves, to play Indigenous Americans. If indigenous actors were used at all in a movie, they didn’t have a speaking part. 

In 1955,  Walt Disney shocked the nation in the movie, “Davie Crockett – King of the Wild Frontier” by using Cherokee Indians (with Mohawk haircuts) to play Upper Creeks and Florida Seminoles to play Georgia Creeks and Florida Seminoles.  He even used Pat Hogan a mixed-blood Oneida Indian from Oklahoma to play the fictional Creek Chief, Red Stick.  Hogan was the son of Claude Red Elk and Ann McTigue and born in Potawatomie County, Oklahoma. He was adopted by a white family in St. Louis, where he was given the name, Thurman Lee Haas.  He changed his name to Pat Hogan after graduating from Pasadena (California) Junior College.

In a twist of irony . . . David Crockett was of French Sephardic Jewish descent.   Fess Parker, the actor, who played him in the movie and a series of Walt Disney TV programs, had substantial Native American ancestry. He looked Upper Creek and had a natural complexion that was darker than many of his Cherokee cast members. Crockett’s mythical Cherokee buddy,  Mingo, was played by Ed Ames, whose real last name was Urick.  Ames was a Ukrainian Jew.

The Unconquered (1947)

Producer-Director  Cecil B. DeMille had already developed a reputation for creating extravagant, long, commercially-successful movies, based on historical themes, when he began planning this project.  It was the first epic movie with a frontier-Western theme.  The plot takes place during the Pontiac Rebellion in 1763, which occurred at the end of the French and Indian War.  The movie utilized many historic figures, such as Colonial George Washington, plus land surveyors, Charles Mason and Jerimiah Dixon.

DeMille paid professional historians the equivalent in 2022 of $12 million to research the history of that era . . . even white slavery (bond servant practices).  Nevertheless, there are several dramatic portions of the plot, which seem to be borrowed almost verbatim from James Fenimore Coopers, Last of the Mohicans.  To save a pretty white woman from being burned at the stake, the hero escapes in a canoe then is chased by a group Native canoes then escapes them by going over a water fall.

The theme from beginning to end in the movie was that the Injuns were primitive, violent people, who were standing in the way of natural tenants of North Americans – Europeans.  All Indigenous American characters were portrayed negatively, almost sub-human. The script is littered with stereotypical clichés about predatory, massacre-happy Indians; for example, Paulette Goddard’s character proclaims: “The Indians will always burn, torture, and kill to get back the wilderness“.

The stars of the movie were Gary Cooper and Paulette Goddard. The all-star supporting cast included Lloyd Bridges, Boris Karloff, Cecil Kellaway, Ward Bond, Howard Da Silva, Alan Napier, Richard Gaines, Katherine DeMille (the director’s daughter), C. Aubrey Smith, Mike Mazurki, Iron Eyes Cody (Chief Red Corn) and Jay Silverheels (uncredited).  Jay Silverhills, the future Tonto on the long-running TV series, “The Long Ranger,” was one of three real indigenous Americans in the cast. The remainder of the several hundred “Indians” on the cast were Caucasians.

As early as 1930,  Espera Oscar de Corti (Iron Eyes Cody) was conning casting directors into thinking that he was a full blooded Native American . . . originally stating that he was half-Cherokee and half-Cree, from Canada.  In truth, he was a full-blooded Sicilian. He conned De Mille into thinking that he was an expert on Indigenous American languages.  Thus, Iron Eyes created a fake, gobbledygook language that DeMille assumed was the Iroquois dialect, spoken by the Seneca Indians.

In 1991, the Manor Inn in Asheville, NC became Albany, New York in 1754!

The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

“The Last of the Mohicans,” directed by Kenneth Michael Mann in 1991-92, has become a “cult classic” and one of the most popular movies from the late 20th century. The cinematography of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge, Black and Pisgah Mountain Ranges is unforgettable.  Its magnificent musical sound track, as composed by South African Trevor Jones, is as popular as ever.

The 1992 film was the last of six 20th century movies,  based on the novel of the same name by James Fenimore Cooper.  By far, it strayed more from the plot of the original book and as a result was a vastly more entertaining movie.  I tried reading the original novel.  The plot tended to drag and Cooper, very frankly, was not that skilled a writer.   I only read about a fourth of the book, before taking it back to the county library.

In particular, the novel frames the romance between characters Alice Munro and the last Mohican, Uncas, as being against the laws of God and Nature.  As a result, they are punished by death.  In the 1992 movie,  the romance is approved of by all the principal heroes and heroine . . . their deaths being chalked up as yet another tragedy of the French and Indian War.  

Readers should be reminded that it was an entirely different social environment in the lower South at this time.  Both Creek and British leaders encouraged intermarriage between the two peoples as a means of maintaining peaceful relations and commerce. The famous Creek micco, William McIntosh, was the first cousin of Georgia Governor George Troup.

There was another important difference in the 1992 movie.  In real life, Magua the Huron warrior did not kill Lieutenant-Colonel George Munro and eat his heart.  Instead, Munro died of an apparent heart attack three months after the siege and capitulation of Fort William Henry.

The film stars Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe, with Jodhi May, Russell Means, Wes Studi, Eric Schweig, and Steven Waddington in supporting roles. Director Michael Mann intentionally set a new precedent for the American film industry. All of the cast, portraying Native Americans, WERE Native Americans. Most of them, Cherokees from North Carolina.

Russell Means and Wes Studi face off for a fight to the death

Furthermore, Russell Means, Wes Studi and Eric Schweig were all talented actors, who were involved in almost every scene and give meaningful dialogue.  They are presented as complex, three-dimensional humans.  This was another first for the movie industry in the United States.  Perhaps the enlightenment of its writers was directly related to the fact that none of the movie was filmed in Hollywood.

Cherokee actor, Wes Studi, played uncredited roles in two earlier successful movies,  “Dances with Wolves” and “The Doors.”  He suddenly appeared in the role of Magua in “The Last of Mohicans,” which should have been considered a staring role.  His outstanding performance as a mentally tortured Huron war leader is unforgettable.  To this day, many who watched “The Last of the Mohicans” feel that it is a travesty that he was not awarded an Oscar for his exceptional work in that movie.

Film Distribution:  For unknown reasons,  “The Last of the Mohicans” premiered in Paris, France on August 26, 1992.  Film distribution did not begin in North America for another month.  The movie was enormously popular in Europe, then at the box offices in the United States, where it was number one for several weeks.  I remember that the initial reviews in the USA were quite negative, until the prima donna movie critics realized that people loved the movie, despite what the reviewers said.

Glen Crannoc Farm in the Reems Creek Valley of North Carolina – c. Sept. 1986

The personal connection – an OMG moment

The filming of “The Last of the Mohicans” occurred during the most traumatic time in my life, which is described in the online book,  The Shenandoah Chronicles. I was aware that the movie was being filmed in the Asheville, North Carolina Area, where I had lived for nine years, but from publicity in the Washington Post newspaper, I had assumed that the filming was in the mountains, southeast of Asheville or downtown at the Manor Inn . . . a historic resort hotel in central Asheville that had been converted into apartments, but in 1991 became 18th century Albany, New York.

Vivi D’Abundance and her 8-year-old daughter, Aimee, spent the six weeks at Shenandoah Chevre Farm on a tourist visa. While there, she formed a domestic corporation to produce wine, bought a large tract in the Blue Ridge Mountains, west of Washington, DC to develop a vineyard and winery then rented a historic townhouse in Alexandria, VA.  Having Vivi market my goat cheeses with me caused the sales to explode.

Vivi and Aimee planned to return September 2nd on a business visa, that would allow them to stay in the United States indefinitely. My estranged wife was staying in Atlanta Area and planned to start in mid-August a new job in northwest Georgia.  In September, Vivi planned to buy out her half interest in the farm and cheese creamery, then staff the dairy operation with professionally trained personnel from France.   

Being an actress, Vivi was invited to the premier of “The Last of the Mohicans” in Paris.  She was busy packing to move to Alexandria, but became intrigued, when Parisian newspapers stated that the beautiful movie was filmed in the Blue Ridge Mountains of the United States.   She assumed that the movie was filmed near her planned winery and so took Aimee to see the natural beauty of where they would soon be living.

On the morning of August 27th,  I woke up to a long fax from Vivi, gushing about the beauty of “Last of the Mohicans.”   She demanded that as soon as possible, she wanted me to take her and Aimee to those places . . . maybe even canoeing on the mountain river, where they filmed the canoeing scenes.

I was just about to write her back, when I heard the herd dogs barking angrily.  I looked out the living room window and saw all 150+ goats and 50+ sheep bunched in a circle in the section of the pasture nearest the house.  They and the dogs were staring toward the woods in the back of our property. 

I assumed that it was a pack of coyotes.  I crept along Toms Brook with my assault rifle till I got close enough to see five Virginia State police and the Commonwealth’s Attorney (DA) parked at the rear entrance to our farm.  They were armed with military weapons and obviously planned to use them on me!

I sneaked back to the house and pondered my last days in this life.  Then a US Marshall came to the front door . . . informed me that these NAZI’s would have murdered me much earlier in the summer, had not Vivi and Aimee been staying at the house.  He eventually chased off the crooked cops, but told me that I needed to move out of Virginia as soon as possible.

So, instead of my fax to Vivi announcing how anxious I was to be in her arms again, stated that there had just been an attempt to murder me and the feds said I had to get out of Virginia ASAP.  I would have to start dismantling and packing the cheesemaking equipment.   Things just got worse during the fall.

Vivi cancelled the move, but did make brief trips to Virginia to supervise planting of grape vines.  I did not get to see “The Last of the Mohicans” until December 16, her 30th birthday.  We went to a movie theater at Tyson’s Corner Mall. 

Then the movie began.  All of the opening scenes . . . the deer hunt, the pioneer cabin, the frontier village and the massacred pioneer cabin were filmed in the woods and pasture above my house.  I knew intimately every blade of grass, tree and bush in that portion of the movie!  That was a real, historic cabin that they burned.   It was very strange feeling, indeed.

And now, thirty years later, the premier of “The Last of the Mohicans” on The Americas Revealed.  Can you imagine me running through those woods and leading my goats to that pasture, when a young man?

3 Comments

  1. Revolutionary War, Grampa’s Seneca-Shawnee ancestors were pro-colonists. Most of the men had gone to fight the Brits when a contingent of British and several Mohawks tried to raid the town. With only women nd children to fight, the Brits were winning, but then the Asgina-Tsiluka, Demon Killer, offered his life in exchange for the town. Mohawks accepted and killed him, taking only a tiny piece of his liver to share. He was placed on the burial platform with great honors. They told the Brits to get out. The officer refused. Then, I was told, the Mohawks smiled and the Brits couldn’t leave fast enough. The sacrifice was a strong point, and a lot of Mohak neutrals decided to fight the brits. Liberals still work hard to punish them for that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, my Creek ancestors were scouts for the Georgia Mounted Rangers during the American Revolution. They mainly fought British Tories. One of my gggg-grandfathers died in the Siege of Savannah. Don’t know what the Rangers were doing way down there on the coast.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Good morning Richard. Oh yes I loved all these films especially “The Last of the Mohicans” Unfortunately the video you have here I can’t get in my country as it is blocked. I love the explanations of all the stars who acted in these films ,thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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