James Wynnegate (Dustin Farnum) and his cousin, Henry (Monroe Salisbury), are upper class Englishmen and have been made trustees for an orphans’ fund. Henry loses money in a bet at a derby and embezzles money from “the fund” to pay off his debts. When war office officials are informed of the money missing from “the fund,” they pursue James, but he successfully escapes to Wyoming. There, James rescues Nat-U-Ritch (Lillian St. Cyr), daughter to the chief of the Utes tribe, from local outlaw Cash Hawkins (William Elmer). Hawkins plans to exact his revenge on James, but has his plans thwarted by Nat-U-Ritch, who fatally shoots him. Later, James gets into an accident in the mountains and needs to be rescued. Nat-U-Ritch tracks him down and carries him back to safety. As she nurses him back to health, they fall in love and later have a child. Meanwhile, during an exploration of the Alps, Henry falls off a cliff. Before he succumbs to his injuries, Henry signs a letter of confession proclaiming James’ innocence in the embezzlement. Before Henry’s widow, Lady Diana (Winifred Kingston), and others arrive in Wyoming to tell James about the news, the Sheriff recovers the murder weapon that was used against Cash Hawkins inside of James and Nat-U-Ritch’s home. Realizing their son was not safe, the couple sends him away, leaving them both distraught. Facing the possibilities of losing both her son and her freedom, Nat-U-Ritch decides to take her own life instead. The movie ends with both the chief of the Utes tribe and James embracing her body.
Non-Native American actor Joseph Singleton played the role of Tabywana, Nat-U-Ritch’s father. Lillian St. Cyr of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska was cast to play the role of Nat-U-Ritch, a member of the Ute tribe. She is also known as “Princess Redwing”. St. Cyr along with her husband James Young Deer (of the Nanticoke people of Delaware) have been regarded as the first “Native American power couple” in Hollywood. DeMille selected Lillian St. Cyr to play Nat-U-Ritch because he wanted an authentic Native American. During the early silent film era, films that were based on the experiences of Native Americans were popular. The central theme of this film was miscegenation. In the state of California, anti-miscegenation laws existed until 1948; however, while African Americans couldn’t legally marry whites in California during the filming process, marriages between Native Americans and whites were permitted. Though there were Native American actors, whites were mostly cast as Indian characters. Native Americans actors who played Indian roles might even perform in redface.
The costumes that Native American filmmakers made were often inaccurate. Young Deer and his wife Lillian St. Cyr helped to transform how Native American characters were represented. The characters they created and portrayed were sympathetic in complex ways, although other studios like Kalem were also attempting to accurately portray Natives in film. However, other scholars argue that Native American-themed silent films did not alter in any way the dominant perception of Indians themselves. Apparently, a large number of films displayed the Native American experience from many different perspectives and did involve Native American writers, filmmakers, and actors during this time period.
By Oscar Apfel and Cecil B. DeMille (YouTube) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons