A black and white movie still of two people dressed as stereotypical Native Americans

Vigil’s ancestor Louis Heminger was in a burgeoning film industry.

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.

A black and white photo of a man in a suit
The Lone Ranger’s Jay Silverheels in 1975. He created the Indian Actors Workshop.

Vigil learned of other Native film actors who performed live. These performances allowed them to tell their own stories—to show, as she explains, “Hey, we’re still here. Look at our culture.”

Such was the case for Shooting Star, whom Vigil found in a spring 1937 Deseret Sun article, performing a drumroll to open a cultural festival featuring traditional dances and music by Sioux, Cherokee, Kickapoo and other nations.

“They’re not trying to put on ‘this is what Indian-ness is.’ They’re giving you their real songs, their real chants, their real drumming, their own tribally specific expressions of who they are,” Vigil says. “It’s a real argument for persistence: in the face of colonization, in the face of domination or conquest, we’re still here.”

Accounts of Native actors frequently overlook their activism. “Jay Silverheels was the most well-known example,” Vigil says, referring to the late Mohawk actor who played Tonto on TV’s The Lone Ranger in the 1950s. “He does all of these interesting things outside of that role to try to educate non-Native people. He’s an awareness-raiser, but he’s also a fundraiser, to help social welfare programs that have been created in Los Angeles … to help send Native youth 
to college. He creates this Indian Actors’ Workshop to try to train new, up-and-coming Native people who come to L.A.” to perform in roles that go beyond stereotypes.

Students in Vigil’s 2019 colloquium helped her with the book research, and Alexis Scalese’22 has served as her intern on the project. Another session of the colloquium convenes this spring.

Heminger: Deseret sun, April 23–30, 1937; Silverheels: Frank Edwards/Getty images