Rare, 1920 film featuring 300 Comanche and Kiowa actors to premiere in Kansas

04/21/2013 6:11 PM

08/06/2014 1:10 AM

A movie nine decades in the making will see its 21st-century premiere on Saturday in Larned.

The rare silent movie made in 1920 features a cast of more than 300 Kiowa and Comanche people.

Only one copy of the movie, which was filmed on highly flammable and easily decomposable silver nitrate film, was made. It was shown to the public only once, in a 1920 viewing in Los Angeles.

What makes it so valuable are the actors – all the sons and daughters of the Kiowa and Comanche tribes who once roamed the Plains of Kansas. They brought their own clothing, horses, tepees and everyday objects to be filmed on location in the summer of 1920 in the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma, near Anadarko. Key actors were children of Comanche Chief Quanah Parker: White and Wandada Parker.

In terms of true iconic American West artifacts, it doesn’t get much better than this, said Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society.

“Very few movies with all-Indian casts were shot in Indian Country,” Blackburn said.

Through the decades, word spread that such a movie once existed. A few black-and-white still photos of the movie, along with the movie script, were archived with the Oklahoma Historical Society, but that was the only archival proof of its existence.

The movie was plucked from obscurity less than a decade ago.

Still considered a work in progress, it will premiere in Kansas on Saturday at the Larned Community Center as part of the Annual Mess and Muster at the Fort Larned National Historic Site, about 140 miles northwest of Wichita.

“I think this is the greatest program we’ve ever had for the Old Guard, and we’ve been putting on programs for 25 years,” Leo Oliva, Kansas historian and writer from Woodston, Kan.

Stepping back in time

When Kit Farwell in Burke, Va., learned “The Daughter of Dawn” would be premiering in Kansas, he purchased a plane ticket so he could see the movie on Saturday.

A descendant of the Comanche nation, Farwell is hoping to see long-deceased family members. Some are listed in the movie’s credits.

“It is something to be proud of,” Farwell said. “It’s something for all Americans to be proud of. This is seeing the Comanches and Kiowas before the English landed and moved in.”

The story line of the movie takes place before European settlers impacted Native American lives.

The way the movie evolved into the 21st century was happenstance, Blackburn said.

In 2005, Blackburn received a phone call from a North Carolina private investigator wanting to know if the Oklahoma Historical Society wanted to buy the movie. Blackburn didn’t. Not for $35,000.

“It was 2005, and we were in the midst of building the Oklahoma Center, a $62 million investment,” Blackburn said.

The detective had received the only copy of the movie as payment for a case he worked on, Blackburn said. It had been stored in a garage for decades.

Negotiations began. Two years later, the detective sold the movie to the Oklahoma Historical Society for $5,000. Grants were received to restore it.

“When we received it, it was in five reels,” Blackburn said. “Some of the parts of the film were in bad shape. Some of it had been spliced together with masking tape. We didn’t want to risk further damage.”

The film was digitized, with closed captions added.

Miraculously, the entire movie – all 83 minutes – survived intact.

What was missing was a musical score. That portion of the movie was never completed.

Blackburn contacted David Yeagley, a Comanche symphonic composer, and commissioned Yeagley to compose the score. And, as a class project, Oklahoma City University students performed and recorded the score.

Once the movie is completed and premiered through the film festival circuit, the Oklahoma Historical Society plans on releasing the movie on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Discoveries in film

Already there have been important discoveries.

When historians reviewed the restored movie, they noticed a prominent tepee with unusual markings – yellow and black horizontal stripes. Known as the Tipi with Battle Pictures, it’s a historic find because it was given to the Kiowa by the Cheyenne as a symbol of peace.

The movie also featured tomahawks and feathered lances to symbolize war honors earned by Kiowa warriors Heart Eater and Sitting on a Tree.

Each year when the tepee was remade, the paintings were copied to the next tepee and handed down from one generation to the next – a virtual history of the Kiowa. The tepee’s paintings served as a record.

Kansas historians believe the Tipi with Battle Pictures would have been present when the Kiowa were at Fort Larned, at treaty signings of the Little Arkansas Peace Treaty of 1865 near Wichita, and at the Medicine Lodge Peace Treaty of 1867.

By the turn of the 20th century, the tepee was only a memory. Native ways, language and customs were strongly discouraged by the federal government through military force and government boarding schools. The Kiowa and Comanche were pushed from Kansas into Indian Territory, now Oklahoma.

In 1916, when a canvas tepee was made, the paintings on the Tipi with Battle Pictures were re-created from memory by prominent Kiowa artists Stephen Mopope, James Auchiah, and Silverhorn. They would later become part of the Kiowa Five, known for pioneering contemporary American Indian art.

In talking with family members – descendants of the people who donated the items in the 1920s – they didn’t know what became of the tepee, said Matt Reed, curator of museum collections at the Oklahoma Historical Society.

“They believed it may have been burned up in a house fire or donated to a big museum on the East Coast, like the Smithsonian,” he said.

But then, one day, while down in the historical society’s basement, Reed came upon a canvas bundle tied together with rope.

He took it off the shelf and began to unroll it. The unmistakable markings on the canvas stood out.

“The design is so unique to Kiowas,” Reed said. “It is a direct connection between Kiowa tradition all the way up until contemporary art. It embodies Kiowa military tradition and history.”

Wichita connection

Eugene “Louie” Stumbling Bear and his wife, Lynn, plan on traveling from Wichita to the movie’s showing Saturday.

Stumbling Bear is descended from the Kiowa, who were removed from Kansas in the late 1860s and brought back in the 1940s when workers were needed to fill Wichita’s aircraft plants.

Kiowa Chiefs Stumbling Bear and Satanta were his great-grandfather and great-great-uncle. Both were present at the signing of 1865 and 1867 treaties. And he may have relatives in the movie.

“Just seeing the old Kiowa people will be worth it,” Stumbling Bear said.

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