May 26, 1912: Mohawk Iroquois film & tv star Jay Silverheels is born
Jay Silverheels was born Harold Smith in Canada on the Six Nations Indian Reserve. His father was a Mohawk chief who had served in World War I. At the time, the Iroquois – like most First Nations people in Canada and their counterparts in the United States – were not considered citizens.
As a young man, Silverheels was incredibly athletic and quickly rose to the status of lacrosse & boxing champion. He came to the US to pursue an athletic career off-rez and soon caught Hollywood’s eye, landing him his first roles as a stuntman and movie extra.
At the time very few Indians were involved in the media spotlight; they almost never received leading roles of any kind and were often overlooked for Native roles in favor of white actors. When Silverheels entered the movie business, Native casting was dominated by actors such as “Iron-Eyes Cody” (an Italian who was billed as an Indian) or by any spray-tanned performer who could be passed off as Indian. It was common practice for white actors with a make-up job to play the lead role of an Indian, while Indians like Silverheels were relegated to being stuntmen or nameless extras with no lines.
Whether the motive was a dependence on big-name actors, or racism, or a need to portray Indians in an artificial and contrived way, this kind of industry provided difficult competition for aspiring Native actors.
Perhaps it was an attempt to create a more “photogenic” Native identity that Silverheels took on his more Indian-sounding screen name in 1945. Originally his nickname on the lacrosse court, “Silverheels” was admittedly more Indian than “Harry Smith.”
The following year he made his debut in his most famous role as Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s sidekick. The series made history by making an Indian actor a household name; but in the process a generation of Americans were raised with the image of Indians as nodding, grunting sidekicks.
While he continued to star in the low-budget Westerns that were so prolific in the 40′s and 50′s, he was discontented with the availability of good work opportunities for Native actors and the typecasting of Indians on-screen. He later went on to found the Indian Actors Workshop, a project to which he devoted enormous amounts of time and resources. It still operates today.
In 1963 he was inducted into the Screen Actors Hall of Fame, but it was a hollow triumph; the social constraints of the day had limited his achievements in film to a dubious legacy that ran counter to his advocacy efforts off-screen. In addition, racial issues and activism were coming to the forefront in America, and the kind of roles that made him famous also made him an effigy of outdated thinking for a new generation to attack.
Regardless of the controversy surrounding his career, he is still widely recognized as an important television pioneer. His persistence and talent paved the way for a new class of Native actors and actresses, causing many to wonder what he might have achieved had he lived under different circumstances, in another era of film. Jay Silverheels died in 1980 at his ranch in California. He continues to receive posthumous awards for his accomplishments.