#189) White Fawn’s Devotion (1910)
OR “Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Framed You in the Cabin and I’m Feelin’ So Sad”
Directed & Written by James Young Deer
Class of 2008
The Plot: British settler Combs (James Young Deer) resides in America with his Native American wife White Fawn (Lillian St. Cyr[?]) and their daughter (Actor Unknown). When Combs learns he has an inheritance waiting for him in England, White Fawn fears he will desert his family. Overcome with sadness at the prospect of losing her husband, White Fawn stabs herself. Combs enters too late, but does manage to be holding his wife’s body and the knife when their daughter returns. This misunderstanding leads to some good old mob mentality.
Why It Matters: The NFR’s write-up is entirely about James Young Deer, rather than the film. The essay by author Scott Simmon gives a quick plot summary, but mostly focuses on Young Deer and the film’s historical context.
But Does It Really?: It’s very clear that “White Fawn’s Devotion” is here because of James Young Deer, the first recorded Native American filmmaker. It gets a pass on cultural significance, plus its status as the rare Young Deer film to survive gives it “Belloq Film” status as well. It barely passes my standards for preservation, but hey, so do a lot of movies on this list.
Everybody Gets One: James Young Johnson was of the Nanticoke people of Delaware. I’m not sure of the significance of Young Deer, but he started using the name when he appeared in Wild West shows in the 1900s. This led to Young Deer acting in, and eventually directing, many a silent western. He used his tenure with the Pathé Frères Studio to further the positive depiction of Native Americans in film. The jury is still out over whether or not that’s Yong Deer’s wife Lillian St. Cyr (aka Princess Red Wing) as White Fawn, but regardless, she was his partner on and off-screen, leading many to call them the first Native American Hollywood power couple.
- If the filmmaker is Native American, is it okay to refer to the cast as “Red Indians”?
- The letter addressed to Combs says they live in “Far Ridge, Dakota”. Is that West Dakota?
- The take of Combs explaining his inheritance to White Fawn goes on forever. Not exactly the opening shot of “Boogie Nights”, is it?
- Are we sure their daughter isn’t Linda Hunt?
- It’s nice to be able to watch Native Americans wearing their traditional regalia without having to cringe at some sort of cultural appropriation.
- If Combs is looking for a fall guy for his wife’s murder, might I suggest the one-armed man?
- When the tribe gets ready to kill Combs, it may be early cinema’s very first “trial by stone”.
- Wait, that’s it? Apparently the last shot of Combs and his family returning home is lost. The current print seems to end with the implication that they were kicked out of the tribe.
- James Young Deer followed this film up with 1911’s “Red Deer’s Devotion”, which is very similar to this film, except it’s a white woman romantically involved with a Native American man. Proving that there were double standards even then, “Red Deer” was not as successful as “White Fawn”. “Red Deer” is believed to be lost.
- Young Deer got into some hot water in 1913 when he was accused of assaulting a 15-year-old girl. He fled to England (there was no Twitter to nopologize on in those days) and made a few films there. When he returned to the states, westerns were no longer fashionable, and he struggled to find work for the remainder of his life.
- Native Americans were quite commonplace in film through the early 1910s. They were often depicted as noble and sage, and equal to their white peers. And then…John Ford showed up.