One of Paramount’s last silent films, released in February 1929, is this spectacularly photographed tale of a Navajo caught between two cultures. By the late 1920s, debate about the relationship of Native Americans to the dominant society was reaching a turning point, as reflected in a nine-hundred-page Interior Department report, published in 1929 as “The Problem of Indian Administration,” as well as in the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that year, Oliver La Farge’s Laughing Boy, another story of the troubled effects of civilization on a Navajo.
Government policy since the end of the Indian Wars in the 1880s had been unwaveringly in support of “amalgamation” of Native Americans into mainstream white society, alongside “allotment” of tribal lands to individual Indians, a policy that culminated in the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. But after the horrors of World War I—in which some seventeen thousand American Indians fought—a contrary view was also rising in which European civilization had evident limits and tribal groupings had values worth preserving, if under a modern corporate governance model. “The Problem of Indian Administration” acknowledged an idea previously heretical in government reports: that some Indians did not wish to integrate into white society but instead sought to “preserve what they have inherited from their fathers.” New possibilities for saving tribal cultures found federal support when President Hoover did what he rightly called a “thorough house-cleaning” of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the spring of 1929, shortly after the release of Redskin. Central to the film is the choice between “assimilation” and “separatism” that all Indians, as newly recognized U.S. citizens, faced especially in these years. In Redskin Wing Foot’s education makes him rootless in two cultures.
In one immediately evident way, Redskin is the most authentic Hollywood fiction film about Native Americans. No western before or since has come close to matching its use of authentic locations. Its story, set in the present day and involving a romance between a Navajo and a Pueblo, provided an excuse to shoot in the two tribal lands, both extraordinarily difficult to reach at the time. Wing Foot lives deep in Canyon de Chelly (in Arizona)—historically the final Navajo stronghold against U.S. conquest and subsequently Navajo tribal land. (When we first see Wing Foot as a child, behind him are the spectacular twelfth century Anasazi dwellings.) Even more impressive, Wing Foot’s government school girlfriend, Corn Blossom, lives on the mesa of Acoma Pueblo (in New Mexico)—probably the oldest continually inhabited community in the United States. The very isolation of Navajo and Pueblo in the 1920s allowed them to represent for white Americans a pastoral primitivism that Plains tribes could no longer convey.
For the first thousand years of Acoma’s habitation, the only route up its three-hundred-foot sheer rock walls was by the hand-carved stairs seen in the film. But visitors to the pueblo today take the road carved in 1928 by Paramount for this film’s heavy two-color Technicolor equipment. This process, variations of which were in use from 1917 until the introduction of three-color Technicolor in 1932, captured light through a beam-splitting prism and two filters onto a double-length black-and-white negative. The canyons and mesas of the Southwest made an ideal location for a process that emphasized reds, browns, and greens. (The sky was another matter; blue was essentially the missing color. Some reviewers archly suggested that the title Redskin referred to the limitations of the color process.) Initially the film was planned entirely for color, but scenes in black and white were substituted to save costs. (The budget was $400,000, and costs for the final negative, even with the partial black and white, came in at $472,000.) The resulting presentation of the white man’s world in (amber-tinted) black and white has a nice logic. It’s a grimmer place.
The title Redskin sounds racist—and that is part of the point: It represents how our Navajo hero is seen after entering mainstream society. (“And you sure acted white—for a Redskin” is praise at college.) The forced removal of children from tribal homes and into government boarding schools is depicted with surprising harshness considering that Paramount had to obtain permissions from the commissioner of Indian Affairs, Charles H. Burke, who famously brooked little criticism of his office. Screenwriter Elizabeth Pickett had assured him that the film “will furnish wholesome and instructive entertainment to the public, especially in regard to the attitude of the Government toward the Indians.” Burke might have been surprised by the scene of Wing Foot being beaten for his refusal to salute the U.S. flag. The authenticity in locations extended to the schools: The first scenes were shot at the Chinle Indian Boarding School at the mouth of Canyon de Chelly; the brief later scene of Wing Foot and Corn Blossom at the end of their high school years was taken at the Sherman Indian Institute in Riverside, California (a “citizen factory” that would “give the Indians a white man’s chance,” according to a 1911 news item).
The story line for the middle of the film was common across Hollywood silents, including such surviving ones as Red Eagle’s Love Affair (1910), Strongheart (1914), and Braveheart (1925): An Indian leaves his tribe for college, where he mistakes camaraderie on the sports field for equality—until he attracts white women. In Redskin a college flapper gets a warning from a chubby undergraduate (“Say! What’s the idea—getting all steamed up over an Indian?”), and Wing Foot is reminded that he is “tolerated” only for his speed on the track. Though plot is not Redskin’s strong suit, the issues faced by Wing Foot—about cultural assimilation and racial identity—have not lost their currency. “My mistake was thinking I ever had a chance among you whites!” he says. “I’m going back to my people—where I belong!” Audiences could take this separatist decision as Native American pride or as a warning against integration. The film deftly shifts attention to a different ethnic conflict: Navajo versus Pueblo. Their reconciliation through Wing Foot and Corn Blossom’s marriage can demonstrate “the greatest gift of heaven—tolerance!” and allow the film an upbeat close, away from its earlier critique of white attitudes, without quite repudiating it.
Redskin’s director was Victor Schertzinger, who came to the job via the unusual route of concert violinist and film-score composer, but the film’s guiding force was Elizabeth Pickett, who wrote the screenplay and the novel on which it was based, both originally titled Navajo. She had produced promotional films for the Red Cross after WWI and directed one-reelers about the Pueblo for the Fox Varieties series in 1926. As was typical for the time, Redskin’s leads are played by non–Native Americans, with only bit players and extras acted by Navajo and Pueblo. Corn Blossom—played in the finished film by “Gladys Belmont” (Julie Carter, in her only major film role)—was to have been played by Louise Brooks, now immortalized in G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929). (Brooks was paid for three weeks’ work on Redskin but appears nowhere in the finished film; she was on the boat to Germany for Pandora’s Box before the rest of the cast returned from Arizona.) Corn Blossom as a child—played endearingly by Lorraine Rivero—provides an echo of the original casting through her iconic Louise Brooks haircut. Pioneer African American film producer Noble Johnson has the thankless role of “Pueblo Jim,” the rival suitor of Corn Blossom. As Wing Foot, Richard Dix returns from a role as a Navajo in The Vanishing American (1925), a film that claims to lament the “vanishing” of American Indians even while illustrating its social Darwinist epigraph about the “survival of the fittest.” But what the rest of the country was discovering in the 1920s, especially through reports from Southwest artist colonies, was that whole cultural groups of Native Americans were surviving quite well. Especially through its location filming, Redskin celebrates the non-vanishing American and is almost the last Hollywood feature for twenty years to take a sympathetic look into Native American life.
Originally published by the National Film Preservation Foundation with its DVD box set, Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film 1900–1934.
Presented at A Day of Silents 2019 with live music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra