Lillian St. Cyr, who took the name Princess Red Wing (frequently rendered as Redwing), Moving Picture World, 1912.
Throughout much of her life, Lillian Margaret St. Cyr felt caught between two worlds as she tried to bridge Native American and white cultures, often feeling out of place in both groups. The daughter of a Native American mother and a father of mixed ancestry, she attended Indian schools that attempted to drain Native American beliefs, spirituality, and attitudes from their students rather than honoring and respecting their culture, leaving the young people feeling disrespected, lost, never fully succeeding in either culture.
Though St. Cyr was light-skinned, most whites considered her a Native American, while many indigenous peoples found her too white in her attitudes, dress, and way of talking. Not long after moving into the entertainment field, St. Cyr adopted the new persona and name Princess Red Wing to more easily “pass” and be cast in better, larger roles where she could provide positive role models of Native Americans to general culture.
St. Cyr found herself pulled between two worlds from an early age. She was the eighth child of French Canadian and Sauk Indian trader Mitchell St. Cyr and Julia De Cora, born on the Winnebago Reservation but of the Ho-Chunk Nation. As a girl, she was sent to be educated at the Episcopal Lincoln Institute in Philadelphia before graduating from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. Although Native American children were educated, they were mostly trained in menial positions such as maids, clerks, or secretaries, leaving many of them struggling to survive in the bigger white world, as described in detail in Linda M. Waggoner’s biography Starring Red Wing!
Finding it difficult to survive in Nebraska, St. Cyr moved to Washington, D. C., to work as the maid to Sen. Chester I. Long (R-Kans.) and family. She fell in love with local resident James Younger Johnson, the son of mulatto parents, and successful African American business leaders. When Johnson and St. Cyr married in 1906, she listed herself as Black on the marriage certificate.
After the couple decided to focus on an entertainment career in 1907, they realized working as Native Americans would provide greater opportunity for success. St. Cyr adopted the name “Red Wing” or “Princess Red Wing,” blending facts and fiction to create the persona of a Native American princess while Johnson adopted the name “James Young Deer,” taking a small dollop of Native American heritage from his Nanticote or Delaware family heritage, and turning himself into a chief’s son from Nebraska. They worked first on stage and then at outdoor entertainment venues like Coney Island, and at the time, they were considered the first Native American power couple in Hollywood.
The couple, as Red Wing and Young Deer, began working Native Americans. By 1908, they found work in the Kalem one-reeler White Squaw playing Native American roles, moving on to advise filmmakers on Native American customs, attitudes, and address, and training actors in speech and action, giving these productions some added cachet. After working with Biograph and Vitagraph, the couple moved to the New York Motion Picture Trust Co., now called Bison, to shoot westerns, immigrating to Hollywood in 1909 along with the company to focus on Native American roles.
Princess Red Wing in Red Wing’s Constancy.
By 1911, the couple branched out, forming their own production wing with Young Deer writing and directing the films which starred Red Wing and white actor George Gebhart. These shorts focused on Native American subjects and matters, filming on location.
Though the nominal star of such shorts as Red Wing’s Gratitude (1909), Red Wing’s Loyalty (1910), Red Wing’s Constancy (1910), and Red Wing and the White Girl (1910), Red Wing usually found herself the sacrificial victim or help in these action-oriented films, unable to gain agency or power even in films created and directed by her husband. The 1910 film Red Wing’s Constancy provided her character with action but little reward. After a hobo stalks her character, her husband goes to attack the man and instead is injured himself. Red Wing saves the day by locating the criminal and injuring him for the attack on her husband but gains nothing out of it.
The couple produced films more palatable to white audiences than to people of color like themselves, trying to placate the dominant power group and gain greater status while offering more realistic mise en scene and stories. The early one- and two-reelers gained large praise from white critics for their look at western stories containing “native” actors, authentic locations, and strong visuals. Many reviewers praised her work, calling her the “foremost Indian performer” and the most famous.
Finally tiring of her husband’s affairs with younger women, reckless spending, and overbearing attitude, Red Wing filed for divorce, taking control of her life and career. She would find her greatest success in the 1914 premiere release of the Cecil B. DeMille-directed, Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Co. production The Squaw Man. Playing Nat-U-Rich, the Native American wife of Jim Wynnegate (Dustin Farnum), an Englishman falsely accused of a crime who comes to America and ends up out West as a cowboy, Red Wing’s character takes control of the story and action before sacrificing herself in order that Jim can more easily take their child back to England and end up together with his long lost white love.
As Waggoner writes in her book, Nat-U-rich embodies the stereotype of the Indian princess as helper and tragic victim, “but on a deeper level her character falls victim to love, racism, and Manifest Destiny.” An apocryphal story during production claimed that Red Wing mistakenly shot herself in her hand while filming a suicide scene, suffering little damage when the bullet merely grazed her skin.
Most critics praised the film and Red Wing’s acting. Moving Picture World acknowledged her “exquisite fidelity,” The June 5, 1914, East Oregonian even called her “a real American in every sense of the word.” The Salt Lake Tribune called her “a consummate, dramatic artist.” Playwright Royle described her work as “a revelation, she has many splendid moments in the play, which she handles with exquisite feeling.”
Though Red Wing received positive notices, her film career was quickly coming to a close as Americans began tiring of these stereotypical westerns and she began aging out of more romantic leads. After appearing with Tom Mix in In the Last Days of the Thundering Herd, (1914) and the 1915 film Fighting Bob, she played her last role as the main character’s mother in the 1916 version of Ramona. In 1915, Red Wing also appeared in John Stephen McGroarty’s Mission Play to lend some authenticity to the production.
Looking for family connection and comfort, Red Wing returned to her family in Nebraska without finding a suitable path to move forward. Trained in housekeeping at the Indian schools, the young woman was forced to apply for domestic work in 1918 to survive. By the early 1920s, she began appearing at local theaters, schools, and libraries as Princess Red Wing, performing Native American songs, dances, and sayings, explaining differences in dress and language among the various tribes. As with newspapers and magazines during her film career, many outlets misidentified the tribe to which she belonged, citing Hopi, Sioux, and Winnebago.
Though Red Wing occasionally appeared onstage over the next several decades, she mostly focused on spreading the positivity of Native Americans to children and adults, praising their culture, music, clothing, and attitudes, often denigrated in popular culture of the time. She demonstrated the similarities between the oppressive, dominant culture and the powerless indigenous one, working to gain it power and respect.
The most important and famous Native American performer of the 1910s, Red Wing was forced to create a more glamorous, powerful persona in order to more easily make a mark on popular culture.