White Fawn’s Devotion: Interracial Marriages and Unclear Heritage
Note: This is the sixtieth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my fifth favorite 1910 film, WHITE FAWN’S DEVOTION: A PLAY ACTED BY A TRIBE OF RED INDIANS IN AMERICA, directed by James Young Deer.
In the late 1900s, the distinguished French film company Pathé Frères came to America by way of New Jersey, where much of the film industry was based at the time. In 1909, James Young Deer, born James Young Johnson, began acting in Western one-reelers for companies like Vitagraph and Biograph. In 1910, Young Deer began directing Westerns for Pathé, notably beginning with WHITE FAWN’S DEVOTION: A PLAY ACTED BY A TRIBE OF RED INDIANS IN AMERICA. After being faced with criticism over the very New Jersey-ness of these so-called Westerns, Pathé sent Young Deer west, where he eventually became the head of the company’s Los Angeles studio, shaping the early days of Hollywood and the Western from 1911 to 1914.
Oh, and one other thing: Young Deer was Native American. This kind of status for a Native American in the 1910s American film industry was, of course, unprecedented. In fact, the film industry, and the Western, truly regressed in its treatment of Native Americans in the decades following. But Young Deer’s success wasn’t entirely based on fact: his heritage claims are murky at best.
This piece from Bright Lights Film Journal by Angela Aleiss is a fascinating, comprehensive piece on Young Deer and his story. The director and actor had always claimed to be of the Winnebago tribe of Nebraska, the same as his wife Lillian St. Cyr. St. Cyr was legitimately Winnebago, and performed as an actress under the stage name Red Wing; her biggest role would come with Cecil B. DeMille and Oscar Apfel’s 1914 feature THE SQUAW MAN.
But as Aleiss’ research found, Young Deer was almost certainly a part of a group once known as the “Moors of Delaware,” or “Delaware’s Forgotten Folk.” It was an obscure community of whites, African Americans, and Native Americans, and its intricacies were not well represented in census reports, to put it lightly. Young Deer was born to “mulatto” parents, but the exact implication of this term is not clear, as it was used to refer to anyone not clearly white or clearly black.
What does seem apparent is Young Deer’s heritage did in fact lie in the Nanticoke tribe by way of his father’s side of the family. As Aleiss points out, it’s not clear if he was even aware of this heritage, although St. Cyr did identify him as part of the Delaware tribe, which was historically aligned with the Nanticoke. Another source points out Young Deer’s paternal great grandparents may have been of the Lenape tribe of Delaware.
In any event, Young Deer was listed as black in the 1900 census, and as a mulatto in Navy files; he served in the Spanish-American War, and had to operate within limited roles as part of a military system that was not to be desegregated for quite some time. Indeed, Aleiss asserts that Young Deer was a black man whose questionable heritage and choice to identify as a Native American afforded him opportunities in show business he would not have had access to otherwise.
Indeed, WHITE FAWN’S DEVOTION is cited as the earliest surviving film directed by a Native American, and was added to the United States National Film Registry in 2008. And although he claimed to be of a tribe he was indeed not a part of, it would seem he did have Native American heritage. It would also be fair to say, however, that he was not authentically part of any Native American culture or tribe. In any event, Young Deer did operate and was recognized as Native American, making his achievements and portrayals a crucial part of the American perception of Native Americans. Indeed, his reworking of his identity for show business success is distinctly American, and foreshadowed the studio identity management that would come in Hollywood’s Golden Age.
But Young Deer’s success was not entirely his own. The Young Deer/St. Cyr “power couple” ended up being a force in the American film industry in its own right. Since St. Cyr knew Native American culture, she likely actually guided Young Deer in his work. The two married in 1906 and began working the stage circuit as a Western/Indian act, which resulted in the pair’s acting gigs in films. They even consulted for two D.W. Griffith “Indian films.”
And to get back to WHITE FAWN’S DEVOTION: yes, Young Deer would ultimately start directing his own films. The lead actress in WHITE FAWN’S DEVOTION is sometimes cited as St. Cyr, but in fact she does not look like Young Deer’s wife. Indeed, the identities of the cast are not clear. But what is clear is that the film portrays a marriage between a white man and a Native American woman, complete with a child born from the union. And that’s incredible for 1910.
It may be important to note here that one-fifth of American films by 1910 were Westerns, and film historians generally see the era as more favorable to Native Americans than the decades to follow. Young Deer’s films, especially once he moved out west to Los Angeles, are perhaps the shining examples of this, although only a handful of his over 100 films have survived. Furthermore, the film industry itself was somewhat of a Wild West at the time. It was not closely regulated and concepts and portrayals that would have been regarded as “problematic” by the establishment in the more rigorous days of the 1920s and ’30s could take root in the rapidly growing industry of the 1910s.
Maybe I should be clear: WHITE FAWN’S DEVOTION is not a great film, even by 1910 standards. It’s a mildly entertaining melodrama with some fascinating historical and representation implications, which I’ve mostly detailed above. The film itself is kind of silly, though. The titular White Fawn, from what I was able to glean, is the Native American woman married to the white man. He discovers that he is the heir to a massive fortune in London, and rushes home to tell his wife and young child. In her fear of losing her husband, White Fawn stabs herself. She’s so devoted that she’d rather kill herself than have her husband leave her, which might not even necessarily be the situation anyways! She does take this drastic action mere moments after he tells her, after all. I can’t imagine they had much time to talk out their plans for the future.
Anyways, the settler discovers his wife, and is promptly discovered himself by his child. She thinks her father has killed her mother, since the knife is in his hands, so she runs to the nearby tribe to tell them. Instead of trying to explain what happened, the settler immediately runs from the tribe, shooting a couple of them dead from his horse and fleeing down the side of a cliff.
The acting and action are silly and overdramatic, but the riverside at the bottom of the cliff is part of the most impressive visual moment, as the settler and the last remaining pursuer move along it. Ultimately, the settler is captured, and the tribe compels his own child to kill him in punishment. But White Fawn shows up, not dead somehow, and explains what happens. The tribe frees the settler (even though he killed a couple of their members) and the family is reunited.
As I said, the movie is kind of ridiculous. But to be clear, many films, and especially the more sensationalist, “action-packed” Westerns of the time, play like WHITE FAWN’S DEVOTION. In spite of contemporary critics’ annoyance with the New Jersey scenery, I actually thought the film’s strongest moments were made by the settings. I was also incredibly impressed by how casually the film portrays its central interracial marriage. No one ever comments on it, and the conflict with White Fawn’s presumed kin is not based on some kind of social mores, just apparent murder!
WHITE FAWN’S DEVOTION’s greatest contribution is the portrayal of this relationship, although it does seem to contain some concerning mental illness. And it propelled Young Deer to a place where he could make his own success as a “Native American.”
After just a couple fast-paced years in Hollywood, however, Young Deer’s career essentially saw its end. In 1913, an actress alleged that he introduced her to perpetrators of a white slave ring. He avoided conviction, but he was also accused of statutory rape by a 15-year-old girl. Young Deer fled to New York, then claimed the accusation stemmed from persecution of Native Americans. Bizarrely, this defense worked in 1914, and he also avoided jail time. He had moved to England while these legal troubles were brewing and worked on Westerns for the Kinematograph Company through the year, then returned to Los Angeles.
Unfortunately for him, however, Pathé stopped American production and instead focused on distribution, while feature films started to bury the short subject the film industry was based on and the Western started to fade from popularity for the first, but not last, time. Eventually, he drifted from studio to studio and made a couple features, wrote scenarios, and taught acting.
But what about St. Cyr? Well, the couple separated in 1915, but never divorced. Young Deer would marry a Helen Gilchrist, who would die at age 38 in 1937 from breast cancer. He would spend the rest of his life in New York City, and died there at age 70, in 1946. St. Cyr lived nearby at the time of his death, and her great nephew said “she really had nothing good to say about him. I had a sense that he got into Hollywood and found that being American Indian was profitable. He wasn’t a very good person. She was glad to be rid of him, to say the least.”
St. Cyr, meanwhile, would live to be 101 years old, dying in 1974 in New York City.
The Young Deer/St. Cyr saga is a fascinating one, and I once again have to direct you to Angela Aleiss’ article “Who Was the Real James Young Deer? The Mysterious Identity of the Pathé Producer Finally Comes to Light.” It’s a great work of research and informed a lot of the information I could find about Young Deer; much of it pointed right back to this article.
My main takeaway from Young Deer’s story is that it’s so distinctly American. He was a fraudulent showman, someone who capitalized on a culture that wasn’t truly his for his own success and used his position of power to take advantage of those weaker than him. But I believe he imparted some positivity as well, crafting some part of the Hollywood scene and bringing the very maligned culture he claimed to be a part of to the screen, and behind it. In doing so, he showed that “even Native Americans” could contribute to a budding artistic medium and commercial industry, and do so with characters who were slightly more than a stereotype. Once again, I think the interracial marriage presented in WHITE FAWN’S DEVOTION is one of its greatest strengths. The film, and Young Deer’s others, also don’t primarily present Native Americans as a novelty, although his persona and the marketing surrounding his work almost certainly did.
Ultimately, I think much of the somewhat limited racial nuance that can be found in Young Deer’s films (I may be impressed/forgiving considering the nature of institutionalized racism in the 1910s) can be attributed to St. Cyr. She was actually Winnebago, and grew up on the reservation in Nebraska. She would have been the one to truly bring the Native American and humanist perspective, and being the capitalist he was, Young Deer may have tainted that to the form that we see in his films, making the Native American experience sellable to white audiences. Even still, Young Deer was authentically non-white, a black man and a Native American who was able to carve out a space for himself in the early American film industry. And his films were so much more progressive than his contemporaries’. These things are what make WHITE FAWN’S DEVOTION: A PLAY ACTED BY A TRIBE OF RED INDIANS IN AMERICA a noteworthy film, and certainly one of the most important of 1910.
Make sure to catch up on and keep up with all of my essays on my favorite films here.