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The Epic Tale Of How A 'Lost' Film With An All Native-American Cast Can Once Again Be Seen

A scene from 'Daughter of the Dawn.'

This week, Kansas Citians have an opportunity to see an extraordinary film that’s been publicly screened fewer than a dozen times since its original release in 1920. For decades, film historians figured it was lost.

The film's journey to Kansas City started back in 2004, when Brian Hearn was the film curator of the Oklahoma City Museum and received a strange call from a private investigator in North Carolina.

“This guy had a client whose grandfather had owned a silent movie theater,” says Hearn, “and when it came time to pay the PI, the client ‘paid’ him with six canisters of film.”

The investigator examined the film and realized that it had been made in Oklahoma and could have historical value, so he’d decided to shop it to the museum. He wanted $35,000 for it, Hearn says.

The investigator started describing what he had, including credits and intertitles (the frames of text in silent films that describe the action and dialog), and it began to sound familiar.

“This guy thinks he has Daughter of Dawn,” Hearn realized. “There is no way.”

A 'lost' film is found

Generations of film historians will remain grateful that Hearn was the one who answered that phone call. Many others would have dismissed the investigator as a con man, or assumed that what he had was worthless.

But Hearn, who is now in Kansas City, where he manages the Kansas City Collection, recognized what the PI was describing from an article he had read in a 1999 issue of Chronicles of Oklahoma about an obscure 1920 film. The author, a history teacher named Leo Kelley, had attempted to recreate the story of Daughter of Dawn using 36 existing production stills.

“Very little knowledge of the actual shoot has been preserved,” Kelley had written. “And even more heartbreaking, the film itself has probably been lost forever.”

Given the uncertain provenance and unusual circumstances, Hearn contacted Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society. They asked the investigator to send some sort of evidence of what he had.

“We were thinking photographs of a few frames, for example,” Hearn says.

The investigator cut physical pieces of the film and sent them in the mail.

Early film was shot on a silver nitrate, which is both extremely flammable and fast to decompose. Once Hearn and Blackburn recovered from the shock of what the investigator had done, they quickly realized the film was authentic and was – at least in part – the presumed-lost Daughter of Dawn.

“It only survived because it probably hadn’t been taken out of its original cans since it was last screened,” which would have likely been in the early 1920s, Hearn says.

Hearn and Blackburn started raising money while talking the investigator down on his price. So began an eight-year long process of acquisition, documentation, preservation, restoration and ultimate distribution by Milestone Films.

One reason the discovery was so exciting is that the vast majority of films shot in the U.S. before 1935 have been lost. This is because of the unstable nature of the film stock itself but also because film was considered to be literally disposable. Cinema was not widely considered “art” at the time, and once it became clear that sound cinema was replacing silent film in the late 1920s, studio heads figured the silent films in their archives were junk and often had them destroyed. The National Film Preservation Board estimates that only 14 percent of films made in the U.S. between 1912 and 1929 survived (other studies put the number at less than 10 percent).

So at the very least, Daughter of Dawn has value as a rarity – a complete motion picture from 1920. But that value increases exponentially thanks to the film’s content.

A document of respect and authenticity

Shot in the late 1910s on the Wichita Game Preserve (in the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma), it features a cast entirely of Comanche and Kiowa actors.

This is nothing less than astonishing, considering the cinematic history of casting white actors to play people of color. In 1920, for example, when Daughter of Dawn received its scant number of screenings, Maurice Tourneur released his adaptation of Last of the Mohicans starring Wallace Beery as Magua. Three years ago, Johnny Depp portrayed Tonto (a character described as Comanche or Pottawatomie) in a version of The Lone Ranger. Last year’s Pan (directed by Joe Wright) starred Rooney Mara in the role of Tiger Lily, explicitly described by Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie as “red-skinned” and “Indian.”

Before he began making films, Daughter of Dawn producer Richard Banks was a trader who lived for decades among the Plains tribes. When approached by director Norbert Myles to collaborate on the film, he specified that it be accurate and respectful in its portrayal of Comanche and Kiowa cultures and traditions.

“What makes it even more incredible is that, at the time Myles was shooting this film, the U.S. government’s ‘Indian agents’ were working to strip the tribes of their culture,” Hearn notes. “By 1919 it was literally illegal in many places to perform ritual dances, participate in religious practices and even speak in Native American languages. The fact that the filmmakers made such an effort to not be disrespectful or exploitative is really unusual for that period.”

Then there are the props and costumes: genuine artifacts owned by the actors in the film. Close-up shots show a particular tipi that turned out to be the “Tipi with Battle Pictures.” Now owned by the Oklahoma Historical Society, it features drawings by members of the Kiowa Five (an influential group of Kiowan artists from Oklahoma). The film and the tipi essentially authenticated each other.

When it was eventually screened at the Kiowa and Comanche tribal headquarters, members of the audience recognized relatives or props and, Hearn says, “someone would say, ‘Oh, I remember my grandmother told me about when they made this film.’”

The film eventually received a National Film Preservation grant and was added to the National Film Registry in 2013. David Yeagley, a Comanche classical composer, created an original score for the film, which was performed and recorded by the student symphony of Oklahoma City University.

Daughter of Dawn, 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, October 18 at the Uptown Arts Bar, 3611 Broadway Street, part of the Cinema Cabaliste series and co-sponsored by the Latino Writers Collective. Seating is limited, so advance tickets are recommended. The film is also streaming on Netflix.

Melissa Lenos is an Assistant Professor of English at Donnelly College, where she teaches film studies, composition, literature and popular culture.  She can be reached at melissalenos@gmail.com

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