The online American Indian Film Gallery, a collection of vintage motion pictures that cover the Native American experience, has recently posted its 400th film. “I had all of these wonderful historical movies, and nobody ever made a documentary using the footage,” said founder and curator J. Fred MacDonald. “So I put it all online for free. These are historical documents, for good or bad. They have to be collected and made available for people to understand history.” MacDonald commented on some of his favorites.
1) Before the White Man Came: “This is a unique feature film, a Western starring only Crow and Northern Cheyenne actors. Filmed in Montana in 1918, it tells the story of a young couple from rival tribes. The fact that all cast members are Indians is stunning, and the fact that that the young brave and his love interest are handsome, honorable people produces a realistic humanity seldom seen in American commercial films. Unfortunately, this motion picture did not open the way for honest representations of American Indians. Originally a silent movie, it was re-released in the 1930s with explanatory narration and a musical soundtrack. This is the version found on the American Indian Film Gallery.”
2) “Maria Tallchief Dances”: “Here are segments from the Pabst Christmas Special that aired on CBS television network on Christmas eve in 1952. Maria Tallchief, daughter of an Osage chief, was among the most acclaimed ballerinas produced in the Unted States. In these excerpts the viewer encounters her flawless dancing and even singing as part of an all-star cast bringing Christmas greetings to all Americans.”
3) “El Navajo”: “The Santa Fe Railroad made several promotional films in the 1940s and 1950s intended to attract tourists to come to Indian country in New Mexico and Arizona—an area served by Santa Fe. ‘El Navajo’ is the best of the Santa Fe movies. This excellent production from 1945 offers a colorful tour of Navajo country in Monument Valley. But more than an appeal to tourism, the movie is a colorful ethnographic study. It is an informative examination of the conditions of Navajo existence at mid-century.”
4) “Injun Talk”: “Despite its derogatory title, this is an informative film that explores the sign language employed by plains Indians in earlier times. This Technicolor short film features cowboy actor and former Indian agent Tim McCoy, plus a Blackfeet chief who demonstrates the manner in which elaborate communication occurred between people from different tribes who spoke different languages.”
5) “Always Kickin'”: “This is a short comedy from 1932 in which Jim Thorpe (Sac and Fox), the greatest athlete of the 20th century, plays an important speaking role. Thorpe is celebrated in the film for his football accomplishments. He portrays himself as a kicking coach for a college team. Remarkably, he actually offers pointers on how to execute a drop kick, then demonstrates the proper form. This is perhaps the only film in which Jim Thorpe was able to play himself as an admirable athlete.”
6) “Golden State Gourd Society”: “These news outtakes are from a Los Angeles TV report on off-reservation Indians who gather regularly to renew friendships as well as sing and dance, particularly the Gourd Dance derived from the Kiowas of Oklahoma. There is much happiness in this footage. Indian drummers and dancers abound. Generations of family members and friends share the experience. And Society members speak eagerly about the Gourd Society. The footage presents an excellent image of people socializing while working to preserve tribal cultures.”