White Fawn's Devotion: A Play Acted by a Tribe of Red Indians in America ★★★½

This is an interesting film, but before I get into any background, I'll speak just on the film. The story this film tells is one that had been circulating for awhile, mostly in the form of the play The Squaw Man. It is pretty simple, but at the same time remarkable for its time. We are shown a story of a family, with an English father, Native American mother, and their child. The was being produced at the same time that other westerns portrayed Native Americans as monstrous savages, and as rapists. The basic plot is that the father gets a letter telling of an inheritance, White Fawn, the mother, panics and, thinking he will leave her alone, attempts to kill herself. As the father weeps, the child sees him holding the knife, and goes to the local tribal leader, and they chase after the man, thinking him a murderer. Once caught, the child must provide justice, until White Fawn returns, only injured and saves them. There is also a missing scene at the end where they return to their homestead and live happily ever after(another radical plot point for the time). This film doesn't have a lot of technical skill behind it, mostly using stable shots, with one or two pans(one of which doesn't do much to keep our characters in frame. Contemporary critics did not like the films use of the New Jersey landscape. While they don't have the grandeur of films out west, I think that they did remarkably well in using the landscape they had available to them for dramatic effect, especially the cliff and ravine. In terms of representation, this film showcases a interracial marriage and provides no reason to believe it wouldn't work, not even requiring the assimilation of the wife into English culture. It also doesn't denigrate Native Americans, allowing them to seek out justice and not punishing them for their actions. I will say that I am unsure what this film is doing with gender, as White Fawn definitely is melodramatic(although that was part of the required style of the time), and to suggest that she is devoted enough to kill herself for her husband or child, seems like a bad message. Apparently James Young Deer directed a later film named Red Deer's Devotion, with a Native American husband and English wife, and I wish that film was still extant, because that would help me see what the broader politics of Young Deer were.

Now that I've mentioned him, I should probably go into more detail, because James Young Deer is a fascinating person. Originally performing for Wild West shows with his wife, as authentic Native Americans, they were cast in several films. As Pathe came to America to make films, especially Westerns as they were highly criticized when from Europe, they hired Young Deer, as a Native American, to direct films for them. He would later become general manager for their west coast offices. But the interesting thing about James Young Deer is that the Native American heritage he claimed, specifically Winnebago like his wife, was untrue. He was from Delaware, specifically a community known as the "Moors of Delaware", which was an interracial community of white, black and Native American heritage. Throughour much of his life, Young Deer was identified as black or mulatto by the government, which prevented him from doing much during his time with the Navy. It is no surprise then that he would take up Native American heritage as their was more respect for Native Americans at the time than there was for black people. But what is even more interesting is that he did have Native American heritage, as Angela Aleiss discovered in her research, specifically with the Nanticoke tribe in Delaware. So this film is significant in part because of its context, but also because of its director, who would be one of the first Native American, and also one of the black directors in film history.