The Cross-Heart People: Race and Inheritance in the Silent Western

The Cross-Heart People: Race and Inheritance in the Silent Western

Journal of Popular Film and Television
Volume 30, Number 4 (Winter 2003)
pages 181-196
DOI: 10.1080/01956050309602855

Joanna Hearne, Assistant Professor of English
University of Missouri

The author examines the visualization of Indianness in the context of cross-racial romance and in relation to the emergence of the Western genre in early silent film. Popular attitudes toward Indian assimilation and United States policy are traced through the cinematic versions of The Squaw Man and other “Indian dramas” from 1908 to 1916.

…the heir is always the one who stays on the land.
The Logic of Practice, 1990

Silent Westerns and “Indian dramas” from 1908 to 1916 provide a remarkable window on Euro-American popular culture representations of the encounter between tribal peoples and the United States military and educational establishments. These early Westerns, many of them now unknown or unavailable outside of archives, provide a composite narrative that depicts the white “family on the land” emerging from the “broken home” of a previous mixed-race marriage, and that equates children, land, and gold as the spoils of failed romance, not of war. The ordeal of separating children from their families and cultures through the Indian boarding-school policy—and the trauma of their return home as outsiders—is fully recognized in silent Westerns, which were produced during a time when federal Indian policy encouraged both assimilation and removal from the land. In these tales of interracial romance, captivity, and adoption, defining narrative features include doubling, mistaken identity, and the social and geographic displacement and replacement of persons. Such narrative strategies reflected the physical acts of displacement and replacement that have been hallmarks of U.S. American Indian policy, from Indian Removal and the Indian Wars through the slow erosion of reservation lands in the twentieth century.

The Squaw Man (Apfel and De Mille, 1914), the first feature-length Western, offers a particularly influential example of the pattern. The film tells the story of James Wynnegate, a refugee from the corrupt English aristocracy, as he establishes a new life for himself in the American West. Jim’s attempt at ranching fails, but in the process he has an affair with Nat-u-Ritch, the daughter of the local Indian chief. When he finds her making a tiny pair of moccasins, he rushes to get a pastor, who refuses to marry the cross-racial couple. Jim’s ranch hands try to talk him out of the marriage as well, until he shows them the moccasins. The ranch hands then force the pastor at gunpoint to perform the ceremony in a racially inflected version of the “shot-gun marriage.”…

…The plot—adapted from Edwin Milton Royle and Julie Opp Faversham’s successful stage play and 1906 novel—is a defining one for cross-racial romance narratives, and the film is a major landmark in the evolution of American cinema. Adapted for the screen three times by Cecil B. De Mille, in 1914, 1918, and 1931, The Squaw Man launched both his directing career and Samuel Goldfish’s Lasky Feature Play Co., which would later become the major studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Why does The Squaw Man narrative—differing as it does from the early Westerns of Tom Mix, and certainly from such later iterations of the genre as John Ford’s Stagecoach—hold such a crucial place in the development of the Western? And why does this story emerge so strongly in the first two decades of the twentieth century? Why does this film, and others based on it, link Indian women’s marriage to white men with the women’s suicide? What is the significance of the forced separation of Indian mother and mixed-blood child that forms the heart of the film’s conflict, as one family gives way to another?…

…Contemporaneous with Westerns and “Indian dramas” such as The Squaw Man, the writings of native and mixed-blood writers such as E. Pauline Johnson, Gertrude Bonnin (Zitkala-Sa), Mourning Dove (Christine Quintasket), John Joseph Mathews, and D’Arcy McNickle provide an indigenous literary context for—and counterpoint to—popular representations of native people. Pauline Johnson’s short stories, including “A Red Girl’s Reasoning,” “As It Was in the Beginning,” and “The Derelict,” emphasize the strength of Indian women and moral weakness of white men in cross-racial relationships. Mourning Dove’s novel Cogewea, first published in 1927, narrates the betrayal of the mixed-blood protagonist Cogewea by her white lover. Other native writers depict the emotional impact of family separation and boarding-school education. D’Arcy McNickle was himself forced to attend the Chemawa Indian Boarding School in Oregon, despite his own and his parents’ objections (Child 13), and writes about children being taken to boarding school in his short story “Train Time” (Peyer). Gertrude Bonnin, who attended missionary Indian schools and later taught at Carlisle, wrote about the failure of missionary education to prepare a Lakota man to care for his family and community in “The Soft-Hearted Sioux.” Native writers working against representations in popular literature and film also highlight issues of inheritance, Indian policy, boarding schools, and cross-racial relationships and mixed-blood children but offer alternative points of view based on personal experience, political advocacy, and cultural authority…

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