Forgotten Hollywood: “The Daughter of Dawn”

by Noël de Souza October 29, 2020
White Parker and Esther LeBarre in “The Daughter of Dawn” (1920)

White Parker and Esther LeBarre in The Daughter of Dawn (1920)

In 2013, the Library of Congress announced that they had selected the 1920 silent film Daughter of Dawn to be inducted into the National Film Registry, the first feature that was filmed in Oklahoma.

One remarkable thing is that this film still existed. 80% of films from the 1920s have been lost or irretrievably damaged. But what’s even more remarkable is that the 80-minute, 6-reel silent film, shot in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, has a cast made up entirely of native Americans – 300 Kiowas and Comanches recruited from the local tribes living on reservations near Lawton, Oklahoma.

In 2005, a film curator at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art received a phone call from a private investigator in North Carolina, telling him he was in receipt of five reels of the film which he received instead of payment for a job and which he wanted to sell for $35,000. The reels had been stored in a garage for decades, some of the footage spliced together with masking tape. The Oklahoma Historical Society, which already had a few black and white photos of the film as well as its script, eventually took custody for a payment of $5,000, and digitized the film from its original silver nitrate, added intertitles, and included an original soundtrack from a composer from the Comanche Nation, David Yeagley.

In the film based on a true story, White Eagle (played by White Parker) and Black Wolf (Jack Sankadota), both vie for the hand of Dawn (Esther LeBarre), the chieftain’s daughter. While Dawn is in love with White Eagle, her father, Hunting Horse, wants her to marry Black Wolf because he has more ponies. To complicate matters, another character, Red Wing (Wanada Parker) is in love with Black Wolf, creating a love triangle. (White and Wanada Parker were children of a famous Comanche chief in real life.) Life on the plains was depicted with buffalo hunts, fight scenes and ceremonial dances – the latter only allowed in the movie as they were considered illegal by the government.

According to the publication Indian Country Today, the film was written and directed by vaudevillian actor Norbert Myles based on a story by producer Richard Banks who started the Texas Film Company in 1916. On the script’s cover is the following inscription – “This story has been made possible by R.E. Banks, whose knowledge of the Indian, and of his traditions, was gained during the twenty-five years that he lived with them.”

Indian Country Today also describes the spartan production values – the film had just one cameraman and no lighting; the cast provided their own horses, tepees and costumes. Wild buffalo were plentiful at the location, and for their chase scenes, the cameraman had to crouch in a pit and shoot the buffalo and Indians passing overhead.

One artifact of note discovered by historians in the movie, reported in the Wichita Eagle, was a prominent tepee with yellow and black stripes which turned out to be a historical one known as the ‘Tipi with Battle Pictures,’ given by the Cheyenne to the Kiowa as a peace symbol. Paintings from one tepee were copied on to the next tepee and passed through generations as a history of the Kiowa, but the last one was lost, as native ways were stamped out by the federal government through military force. It was found in the historical society’s basement eventually.

When the picture was finished, newspaper reports indicated that there were screenings held in Los Angeles, Kansas City and Tulsa. The restored version was shown in 2012 at the deadCENTER Film Festival in Oklahoma City in the presence of well-known Native American actor Wes Studi.

The film is now available on DVD and Blu-ray, with eight video documentaries produced by the Oklahoma Historical Society about the history of the film.