Almost as long as there have been motion pictures, there have been Westerns. For Native Americans, much of the history of that genre has been an ugly one: Native actors have often been cast as villains, or merged into a bland portrayal based on 19th-century stereotypes of Great Plains Indians.
But look past the celluloid images and you’ll find real people. It’s a complicated history and, for Kiara Vigil, assistant professor of American studies, a personal one.
Vigil is at work on a book about Native Americans in the entertainment industry, and her jumping-off point is her great-grandfather Louis Heminger, who performed under the stage name Shooting Star. Tentatively titled Natives in Transit: Indian Entertainment, Urban Life, and Activism from the 1930s to the 1970s, the book “is centered around my great-grandfather’s movements in California, popping up at these different places,” she says. “It’s a way for me to talk about Native entertainers.”
Heminger was born in 1890 in Sisseton, S.D., and, like many of his fellow Dakota, made his way to Southern California to work in the burgeoning entertainment industry. By the time of his death in Hollywood in 1966, he had more than a dozen film and television credits, including roles in Buffalo Bill Rides Again (1947), Buffalo Bill in Tomahawk Territory (1952) and a 1953 episode of The Loretta Young Show.
Vigil knew about Shooting Star, who died before she was born, mostly through her father. In addition to performing in film and on TV, her great-grandfather worked at Disneyland, acting in the “Indian Village” of the amusement park’s Frontierland attraction. Vigil inherited her father’s jaundiced view of Westerns, an attitude she says contributed to her critical skills as a cultural observer today.
Many have written and spoken about the wide chasm between Native Americans of the screen and reality. But after publishing her first book, 2015’s Indigenous Intellectuals: Sovereignty, Citizenship, and the American Imagination, 1880–1930, Vigil became interested in putting Native actors themselves at the center of the story. Indigenous Intellectuals’ final chapter is devoted to author, educator and philosopher Luther Standing Bear (1868–1939), who also acted in Hollywood and performed in live shows.