First Nations: Movie myths and lacrosse sticks

Jay Silverheels, a.k.a. Harold J. Smith
Jay Silverheels, a.k.a. Harold J. Smith

When Disney’s $250 million western The Lone Ranger opens on July 3, there will be a lot of talk about Johnny Depp playing the role of Tonto. This is not that story. For me, the only ‘Tonto’ is Jay Silverheels, who went from playing lacrosse for Six Nations on the Grand River near Brantford to seeing his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Played by First Nations long before Europeans arrived, lacrosse is Canada’s official summer sport. The game also has a rich tradition in the Beach. A century ago, big crowds cheered at pro lacrosse matches at Toronto Athletic Field next to Scarboro Beach Amusement Park (1907-1925), south of Queen between Kew and Balmy Beach.

On the same night the Leafs were falling in Boston, the Beaches Junior A Lacrosse team opened their season at Ted Reeve Arena facing the champion Six Nations Arrows. A lifelong Beach resident, Ted Reeve (1902-1983) won two Grey Cups with the Balmy Beach football teams of 1927 and 1930, but his first joy was watching lacrosse at the “beautiful stadium at the end of the streetcar line.”

The rough and tumble ‘Torontos’ were champions in 1912, a magical time for field lacrosse, with 6,000 or more spectators. Reeve went on to star with two Mann Cup-winning teams in 1929 and 1930.

In that golden summer of 1912, before war clouds circled Europe, Jay Silverheels was born Harold J. Smith, the son of Captain A.G. Smith, a Mohawk chief and highly decorated veteran of the First World War. The young Smith was a terrific athlete, a Golden Gloves boxer and speedy lacrosse player. In the 1930s Smith arrived in L.A. with a touring team and stayed to work as a stunt man and film extra. He later adopted the nickname ‘Silverheels’, earned for his running ability and skills on the lacrosse field.

It’s not news that Hollywood perpetuated racist stereotypes for decades. ‘Cowboy and Indian’ westerns were popular from the 1930s to the 1960s. Native Americans were usually played by non-natives and portrayed as bloodthirsty savages out to kill pioneers. The most famous ‘Indians’ of their day were Grey Owl (1888-1938), an Englishman, and Iron Eyes Cody (1907-1999) who was Italian-American.

Jay Silverheels felt he had no choice but to take the caricatured ‘Uncle Tomahawk’ parts he was offered. He was the first First Nations actor to star on television, playing one of the ‘good guys’ on The Lone Ranger (1947-1957). He became famous in a role that he knew was a cartoon-like portrayal of his own people. Silverheels was nothing like the stoic, broken English-speaking sidekick, but he could never escape typecasting. In a skit with Johnny Carson the actor joked, “I’m Tonto, I hail from Toronto and I speak Esperanto.”

Before his death in 1980, Silverheels helped open doors for First Nations actors and established the Indian Actors’ Workshop. For his full life story read Tonto: The Man in Front of the Mask by Zig Misiak.

The entertaining NFB documentary Reel Injun (2009) takes a critical look at Hollywood’s treatment of First Nations people on screen. Since the 1990s there has been an awakening of aboriginal cinema. Three generations of actors have brought humanity and humour to their roles: Chief Dan George (from Vancouver), Graham Greene (Six Nations Oneida) and Adam Beach (Salteaux, Manitoba). Beach auditioned for the role of Tonto, but I guess he wasn’t right for the part!

High school lacrosse is featured in two recent films. Crooked Arrows (2012) stars Brandon Routh and actual Six Nations lacrosse players, while A Warrior’s Heart (2011) has Adam Beach helping a teen at a ‘Six Nations Work Camp’.

For a beautifully illustrated history of ‘the Creator’s game’, check out Lacrosse: The Ancient Game (2011) by local writers Jim Calder and your author’s brother, Ron Fletcher, at the Beaches and Main Street library branches.

In June Canadians celebrate National Aboriginal History Month and June 21 is National Aboriginal Day.

Lacrosse isn’t our only First Nations legacy. If not for their efforts in the War of 1812, we would all be pledging allegiance to the Stars and Stripes. Laura Secord is famous for her journey on June 22, 1813, to warn of an American attack, but it was Mohawk and Six Nations of the Grand River warriors who did all the fighting at the Battle of Beaver Dams, capturing 500 American soldiers. In the year Jay Silverheels was born, 1912, his father gave a speech at the rededication of Brock’s Monument at Queenston Heights. General Brock’s promise of a free First Nations land died with him. In spite of broken treaties, First Nations people have stayed loyal to the British Crown for 250 years and served in every war.

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