American Indians in Show Business
October 10 -11, 2014
An initiative of the Cumberland County Historical Society
The Carlisle Indian Industrial School (CIIS) was founded in 1879 as a training program to indoctrinate American Indians for the transition to life outside their traditional communities. It was the intention of the federal government that administered the school, that students from tribal communities would assimilate and shun reservation life. A handful of CIIS graduates went on to work as professionals in the Indian Bureau, Indian Health Service and various Indian agencies as school teachers, boarding school staffers, nurses and bureaucrats.
Integral to this acculturation process was the inclusion of extracurricular programs stressing the arts: drama, literature, music, visual arts and elocution. Drama had its place in the mix of activities at Carlisle. Student performances, including impromptu skits and formal programs, were prominently featured school events as well as for the general public. In 1909 and 1910, the comic opera, “The Captain at Plymouth,” was performed at the Carlisle Opera House for the community. The musical, based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem, “The Courtship of Myles Standish”, included a cast of dozens of Carlisle students reenacting the colonial settlement by the Pilgrims and the resulting conflict with the Wampanoag’s.
After those experiences as students, some Carlisle alumni went on to perform in the growing world of “show business”: in music halls, Wild West shows, on theatre stages from Broadway to LA, and into the emerging film industry. In an era when the concept of celebrity evolved from the developing technology of electricity, moving pictures, telegraph, and radio (the new mass media), Indians were also challenged to preserve their identities. Some became famous. Lillian St. Cyr (Winnebago), was the first native actress to star in Cecil B. DeMille films. Chauncey Yellow Robe (Sioux) and Sylvester Long (Cherokee Imposter), both starred in the first native-acted silent film, “The Silent Enemy.” Richard (Chief Thunderbird) Davis (Cheyenne), Jim Thorpe (Sac and Fox) and Luther Standing Bear (Sioux) all went to Hollywood hoping to act in films. Minnie Kennedy (Osage) founded the first native-owned film company. There were dozens of former students working in the Wild West Shows, on Broadway and in local theatre companies.
The Cumberland County Historical Society is planning the first in a series of “Carlisle Journeys” bi-annual conferences for the Fall of 2014 entitled, “Carlisle Journeys: American Indians in Show Business”. The Carlisle Indian School students who made their way into films, shows and theatres will be examined by their respective biographers. The influence and banning of the wild-west shows is another area we will explore in the conference. We also will hear from contemporary entertainers who will be able to share their own experiences, including the influence of the Carlisle and other boarding schools on their craft. We look forward to their presentations and performances.
Cyndi Corn, PhD Candidate Penn State U
Cara Curtis, Librarian CCHS
Gary Gordon, Prof, Wilkes College
Jason Illari, Executive Director CCHS
Barbara Landis, CIIS Biographer CCHS
Matthew March, Education Curator CCHS
Dovie Thomason, Storyteller
Malinda Trillen, Special Collections Archivist, Dickinson College
See the full call for proposals HERE.
Final submission deadline: May 1, 2014.