Em-koy-e-tie, a young Kiowa woman, walked right at the camera in the silent film.
The lump built in Sammy “Tone-kei” White's throat, tears welled in his eyes and he felt a sudden chill in the room as he watched the scene five years ago.
This was his mother in 1920.
For historians “The Daughter of Dawn,” an 80-minute, six-reel silent film shot in July 1920 in the Wichita Mountains of southwest Oklahoma, is history put to motion.
But for White, 82, this was the part of his mother, one of about 300 Kiowas and Comanches in the all-Indian cast, he had only heard of throughout his life. When she died in 1946, so many people talked of her appearance in the film.
Although a “sneak preview” of “The Daughter of Dawn” was held in mid-October 1920 at the College Theater in Los Angeles, nothing was really heard of the film after that.
Until Brian Hearn, film curator at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, answered the phone one day about seven years ago. A private investigator in North Carolina said he had received a copy of a silver nitrate film as payment for an investigation, and thought the film was “The Daughter of Dawn.”
The investigator was interested in selling it. But since the museum hadn't started collecting films, Hearn decided to contact the Oklahoma Historical Society. Through the actions of many people and organizations, the movie has been restored and rereleased with the first screening held in June at the deadCenter Film Festival in Oklahoma City.
While White hasn't seen the entire film, museum staff showed him scenes in 2007.
“My mother was walking right at me, she was so beautiful,” White said. “I'm glad the room we were watching it in was dark, because it was emotional seeing her so young.
“To have someone say we have ‘The Daughter of Dawn' is something very sentimental to me.”
A look at a distant time
The lead actor is White Parker and one of the other key roles is played by Wanada Parker. They were the son and daughter of the great Comanche leader Quanah Parker, said Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society.
Also appearing in the movie is Esther LeBarre as Dawn, Hunting Horse as her father the chief, and Jack Sankadoty as Wolf.
Blackburn said it's likely in 1920 that many members of the movie's cast would have been those living on allotments and trying to adjust.
“A lot of these people were pre-reservation Indians, who had been wandering free out on the Plains,” Blackburn said. “Some of the people in that movie were in their 60s and 70s. They would have been young warriors out on the battle trail.
“And here they are depicting warriors again in their own gear, with their own tepee. That affects me every time I talk about it.”
The script for the movie was developed by Norbert Myles, an actor, writer and director brought into the project by Richard Banks, who started the Texas Film Company in 1916.
Myles wrote on the cover of his script that, “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.”
The film includes a four-way love story, buffalo hunt scenes, a battle scene, village scenes, dances, deceit, courage and hand to hand combat, Blackburn said.
In one scene a young buffalo bumps into one of the riders.
The Kiowa is knocked from his horse to the rocky terrain of the Wichita Mountains area.
“The rider just gets back up, and goes on,” said Matt Reed, a curator at the Oklahoma Museum of History. “You're like, ‘Wow, you're in a breechcloth and moccasins and riding at full speed you just fell from a horse and it didn't even faze you.' These are some tough, tough people.”
Plans for the film
Reed and Bill Moore were the staff members who showed some scenes of the movie to Sammy White in 2007.
As staff visited with Kiowa and Comanche friends who identified people in the movie and described some of the objects brought from their homes to the set, one object in particular stood out. It was a tepee with bold horizontal stripes positioned at a key spot in every scene. The Kiowas said it was an especially significant tepee that disappeared in 1928.
Just a few years ago, while one of their curators was going through collections at the Oklahoma History Center, he pulled a canvas tepee off the shelf, unrolled it, and recognized it as the tepee in the movie, Blackburn said.
“If he had never seen ‘Daughter of Dawn,' the tepee might still be undiscovered,” Blackburn said. “And next year, the tepee will be used in a new museum exhibit.”
Plans for the film include taking it to festivals in the U.S. and internationally, offering it for broadcast, selling it on DVD, and using it as a central component of exhibits at the Oklahoma History Center and at the proposed Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture in Tulsa. In the meantime, “It will be used for historical research and appreciated as a piece of motion picture art,” Blackburn said.
“I will never forget the day we received the restored film and the digital conversion that we could view,” Blackburn said. “Seeing Southern Plains material culture in a museum and reading about traditional Indian customs leaves much to the imagination. Seeing both captured in moving pictures is like traveling back in time.”
That's certainly what it did for Sammy White, as his mother walked right at the camera.