More than Wild West Show Absurdities: Week of November 13th, 1920

Tsianina Redfeather

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reviewed a film that First Nations historians wish they could see:

Somebody has said there is nothing so painful as a new idea, and sometimes you feel that way about it in regard to motion pictures when you see a good idea floundering, gasping and going down for the last time, drowned in a sea of stupidity and poor visualization.

How delightful, then, to behold a brand new thought worked out with artistry and finesse, as supremely visible at the California this week, in that beautiful Indian two-reel feature—I suppose it was two reels, but really lost track of the time—From the Land of the Sky Blue Water.

This little film gem commences with the telling of an Indian legend of a princess beloved of one of the men of her own tribe and by a brave of an enemy clan. White Eagle, the lover of her clan, is slain. Then the story glides quite imperceptibly, but with infinite rhythm and poesy into Charles Wakefield Cadman’s song. Princess Tsianina and White Eagle are featured and enrich the portrayal.

From the Land of the Sky Blue Water has apparently vanished without a trace. Kingsley was wrong – it was only one reel long. Its star and producer, Tsianina Redfeather, was famous for her mezzo-soprano voice and for educating people about Native American culture. She founded the American Indian Film Company and its motto was “of the Indian, by the Indian and for the Indian.”

Cadman and Redfeather

Redfeather was born December 13, 1882 in Eufaula, Oklahoma; her family was of Cherokee and Creek ancestry. At boarding school, a teacher recognized her musical talent and sent her to Denver for formal musical training. There her voice teacher introduced her to composer Charles Wakefield Cadman, a Caucasian who gave lectures and recitals about First Nations music. She toured with him from 1909 to 1916; his composition “From the Land of the Sky Blue Water” became her signature song.

Here are the lyrics:

From the land of the sky-blue water
They brought a captive maid,
And her eyes, they were lit with lightning;
Her heart was not afraid!
 
And he steals to her lodge at dawning
And woos her with his flute.
She is sick for the sky-blue water,
The captive maid is mute.

Sky Blue Water wasn’t her first experience with filmmaking. In 1915, she had the leading role in a film directed by J.W. Early for the Columbia Amusement Company, a vaudeville circuit. Shot in Colorado to make full use of the beautiful landscape, it has also disappeared.

Entertaining the troops

During the first World War, she organized an entertainment group to tour Allied camps in France and Germany. According to historian Wendi Bevitt, “this experience reinforced her knowledge that the majority of Europeans and Euro-Americans believed that American Indians live lives of massacrers or wild west show absurdities.” So when she returned, she founded her film company to help counteract that. She hired experienced Nestor Studio director Louis William Chaudet to oversee the production and Cadman to write the score.

Kingsley said the feature was “so mixed with obvious plot hokum, plus an asinine finish, the picture is all very unconvincing and insulting to common sense.” It’s preserved at a Belgian archive because film survival is random and unfair.

Even though Kingsley thought it was an artistic success, the film didn’t make enough money to keep the company going and Redfeather went back to singing. She had also collaborated with Cadman on an opera based on her life called Shanewis (The Robin Woman), which premiered at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House in 1918. It toured the United States, and she got to perform it in Denver in 1924 and in Los Angeles in 1926. She retired from singing in 1935. She worked as an activist for Indian education, co-founding the American Indian Education Foundation. She died in 1985, age 102. Her grand-niece and namesake, Tsianina Lomawaima, is a professor at Arizona State University who specializes in the history of American Indian schooling and indigenous performers in the 20th century.

Maybe one day her film will be found: archives should be on the lookout! The can labeled “From the Land of Sky-Blue Waters” might not be a Hamm’s beer commercial (yes, the jingle was based on the song).

Bebe Daniels on a different boat, Captain Kidd’s Kids (1919)

We also learned this week that Bebe Daniels could make the best of trying circumstances. She had gone rowing alone on Big Bear Lake and lost track of time. A search party, including Seymour Tally (son of Tally’s Broadway owner) set out to find her:

and finally she was discovered, just as the sun was setting, rowing up into a bijou, quite away from the camp landing place. Miss Daniels was duly glad to be rescued, no doubt, but what she said was:

“Well, if these picture exhibiters aren’t the limit! They can’t stand to let us out of their sight a minute!”

No wonder she had the grit to live and work through the London blitz twenty years later!

 

Wendi M. Bevitt, “The Daughter of the Dawn and the Promotion of American Indian Culture,” The Chronicles of Oklahoma, Summer 2019, pp. 134-135.

Muriel Lee, “Indian Singer to Lead in Red Man Film.” Moving Picture World, October 9, 1915, p.306

Edwin Schallert, “Don War Paint,” Los Angeles Times, July 1, 1920

Edwyna Synar “Remember the Ladies,” Muskogee Phoenix.

3 thoughts on “More than Wild West Show Absurdities: Week of November 13th, 1920”

  1. The word “lost” appears much too much on your blog. It’s depressing. Try using alternate words or phrases, such as, “recently discovered”, “found”, “never lost” and “I’ve got a copy right here in front of me”

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: