Kiara Vigil

Kiara Vigil, assistant professor of American studies.

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 if you look past the celluloid images, there are real people who are telling their stories. 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 own great-grandfather Louis Heminger, who performed under the stage name Shooting Star.

The framing of the book, tentatively titled Natives in Transit: Indian Entertainment, Urban Life, and Activism from the 1930s to the 1970s, “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 these less-than-stellar productions, Heminger worked at Disneyland, acting in the “Indian Village” of the amusement park’s Frontierland attraction. Vigil inherited her father’s jaundiced view of the Western movies, an attitude that she says contributed to her critical skills as a cultural observer today.

Two native american men stand side by side, one playing a drum
Professor Vigil's great-grandfather, Louis Heminger (right), performed under the stage name Shooting Star. (From the publication The Desert Sun of Palm Springs, California, Friday, April 23, 1937.)

“There’s a way in which you can love movies and appreciate them, but also be very skeptical of the industry,” she says. “I heard these stories, but I never really knew more beyond that. [But] at an early age it instilled a skepticism around what kinds of stories these films are telling.”

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 the Native actors themselves at the center of the story. Indigenous Intellectuals’ final chapter is devoted to the life and writings of Luther Standing Bear (1868–1939), an author, educator and philosopher. Later in his life, he acted in Hollywood, having come that way via a career as a performer with live shows such as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.

“There are all [these] other Native people who are also professional film actors, who, when they’re not on screen or doing that kind of work, they’re doing other live performance as a kind of supplemental income,” Vigil says. These performances gave them a greater opportunity to tell their own stories: “It’s a PR moment for [saying], ‘Hey, we’re still here. Look at our culture.’” Such was the case for Shooting Star, whom she found in a 1937 Palm Springs newspaper article, performing a drumroll to open the California All-Indian Fiesta, a cultural festival featuring traditional dances and music by Sioux, Cherokee, Kickapoo and other nations.

“They’re not performing for a film audience. 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,” she adds: “In the face of colonization, in the face of domination or conquest, we’re still here.”

In fact, she says, the story that is often overlooked is about activism, not acting. “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 really 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.

She is speaking with potential publishers and hopes to have the volume out in 2022. Students who took her Spring 2019 colloquium on research methods helped her with the research. Another session of the colloquium convenes this spring. And Alexis Scalese ’22 is interning with Vigil on the book project now.

Vigil says that working on the book “has been a really interesting journey.” 

“I think it’s a totally self-serving project in terms of the family connection, but I also think all scholarship is self-serving,” she says. “I think that most academics, whether they want to admit it or not, are studying what they’re studying because it’s telling them something about who they are.”