A star was born

Princess Mona Dark­feather

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This is the story of how a girl de­scended from Taos Pue­blo In­di­ans be­came the first Na­tive Amer­i­can ac­tress to achieve fame in Hol­ly­wood. The name of this long-ago celebrity? Princess Mona Dark­feather.

She was ac­tu­ally born in Los An­ge­les and never lived in Taos Pue­blo, or ever even ac­knowl­edged any con­nec­tion to the place. At var­i­ous times, she claimed to be de­scended from an aris­to­cratic Span­ish fam­ily, or to have been raised as a princess by the Black­foot tribe. This much we know about Dark­feather: Her real name was Josephine Work­man, and she was born in 1882 or 1883 in Boyle Heights, a down­town district flanked by East LA and, to the north, by Dodger Sta­dium. She might not have been aware of it, but her fa­ther, Joseph Manuel Work­man, was in­deed of mixed blood — half Bri­tish, and half Taos Pue­blo In­dian.

Her grand­fa­ther, Wil­liam Work­man, had come from Eng­land, stop­ping first in Taos, where he met and ro­manced Maria Ni­co­lasa Urioste de Va­len­cia. The two trav­eled to Los An­ge­les in one of the first Amer­i­can over­land trav­el­ing par­ties to reach the Mex­i­can en­clave in 1841. They had a com­mon-law mar­riage, but made ev­ery­thing of­fi­cial in 1844, with a full church wed­ding at San Gabriel Mis­sion.

So though Mona Dark­feather might not have been aware of it, her an­ces­try traced back to Taos Pue­blo. But what of her talk of Span­ish aris­to­cratic blood? There was some truth to that as well. Her mother, Josephine Mary Belt, was of mixed Scot­tish and Chilean her­itage. And what about her as­ser­tion that she was born a princess? Not true. But while tour­ing with In­dian medicine shows in the early 1900s, she was chris­tened a “princess” by Chief Big Thun­der of the Black­foot tribe in Mon­tana, af­ter he had des­ig­nated her a blood mem­ber of the tribe. She ap­par­ently needed the ti­tle to com­pete with Lillian St. Cyr, a Win­nebago from Ne­braska who trav­eled in the same shows and went by the name Princess Red Wing.

St. Cyr’s hus­band, James Young Deer, helped pro­mote her as the leader of Na­tive Amer­i­can per­form­ing troupes un­der the aus­pices of the Bar­num and Bai­ley Cir­cus as well as the Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch Wild West Show. In 1909, Young Deer be­came the first Na­tive Amer­i­can to di­rect a movie, a one-reel drama called The Fall­ing Ar­row. Silent film icon D.W. Grif­fith hired Young Deer, as did Pathé Stu­dio, when it sent its first pro­duc­tion units from France to make Westerns in the New World. Young Deer cast Princess Red Wing in some of his films, mak­ing her the first Na­tive Amer­i­can ac­tress to ap­pear in cin­ema.

How­ever, the first Na­tive ac­tress to be­come a star was Princess Dark­feather, a younger mem­ber of their trav­el­ing shows. We don’t know ex­actly how Josephine’s name mor­phed into Mona Dark­feather or when and where she picked up that stage name. But her fas­ci­na­tion with movies be­gan in 1900, when the fed­eral cen­sus listed her as a “whistler,” which ba­si­cally meant she stood out­side nick­elodeon the­aters call­ing out the won­drous sights pa­trons might see in­side th­ese grand shrines. Dark­feather’s screen de­but came in 1910, af­ter she an­swered a news­pa­per ad placed by Thomas Ince of Bi­son Mo­tion Pic­tures seek­ing girls to play In­dian maid­ens. She lied about be­ing able to ride horses and do her own stunts, but quickly mas­tered those arts. In no time, she be­came a star, rid­ing bare­back on her pinto pony, Co­manche.

While Princess Red Wing and Princess Mona Dark­feather were ri­vals, and com­peted for the same roles, Dark­feather had the big­ger fol­low­ing. She ap­peared in more than 100 films, far more than the 60 or so cred­ited to Red Wing. Her name typ­i­cally ap­peared first or sec­ond in the cred­its, and she usu­ally had juicier, ro­man­tic parts, of­ten in­volv­ing tragic ends. She had a typ­i­cal role in the 1912 film At Old

Fort Dear­born, where she plays an In­dian maiden named Singing Bird who falls for a white sol­dier. He is im­pris­oned by her tribe, but she re­leases him, thereby fac­ing dire con­se­quences.

This would be­come a com­mon theme. She of­ten en­coun­tered danger and death, although some­times mat­ters were re­versed and a love­struck man would be smit­ten by her, hav­ing to beg for her mercy. While she mostly played Na­tive maid­ens, she some­times por­trayed a Span­ish con­quis­ta­dora, a Gypsy, or other for­eign beau­ties, shoot­ing against back­drops pro­vided by Proven­cia Ranch and the Hol­ly­wood Hills. Prob­a­bly her most fa­mous role was as Prairie Flower

in the 1914 film The Van­ish­ing Tribe. She also made A For­est Romance, Jus­tice of the

Wild, and For the Peace of Bear Val­ley. Nearly all of her films are now lost to the ages, with only a hand­ful sur­viv­ing, some­times only in frag­ments. She not only made pic­tures for Bi­son, but also Selig Polyscope, Nestor, Cen­taur, Kalem, and other long-gone stu­dios, as well as some of the ear­li­est shorts made by a new out­fit: Uni­ver­sal Pic­tures.

In 1914, Ce­cil B. DeMille wanted her to play the In­dian maiden Nat-u-ritch in

The Squaw Man, his first film and the first fea­ture made in Hol­ly­wood. She de­clined be­cause she was al­ready sched­uled to work with her hus­band at the time — Frank Mont­gomery, a lead­ing di­rec­tor and writer with the Kalem stu­dio. Af­ter Dark­feather re­jected the role, DeMille gave the part to Princess Red Wing.

Be­tween 1910 and 1917, Dark­feather made 102 films, mostly one-and two-reel­ers, last­ing 10 to 25 min­utes. She left the busi­ness for good, for rea­sons un­known, af­ter wrap­ping up her last film The Hid­den Danger. She and Mont­gomery moved to Wash­ing­ton State, open­ing an act­ing stu­dio in Spokane. In 1918, af­ter the melo­drama Eyes of the World came out, she made nightly ap­pear­ances at the Lib­erty Theater in Ta­coma, singing and danc­ing in a rat­tlesnake dress and urg­ing young girls to fol­low in her foot­steps and go to Hol­ly­wood.

Mont­gomery was the love of her life. They mar­ried each other twice, the first time from 1912 to 1928 and again from 1937 un­til his death in 1944. She stayed home while he worked as a cam­era­man and tech­ni­cian with the Hal Roach Stu­dio and even­tu­ally for MGM. She also mar­ried a Her­mosa Beach banker for a short while, and pos­si­bly her silent co-star Ar­tie Ortega, although that re­mains sub­ject to de­bate. Her great-nephew Doug Neilson re­mem­bers see­ing a stock­pile of mem­o­ra­bilia from the silent era that she kept un­der her bed at her long­time home in Echo Park. But by the time she died on Sept. 3, 1977, at the age of ninety-five, the sou­venirs had van­ished. A few tid­bits have sur­faced on­line. Dark­feather had her own sta­tionery, em­bla­zoned with a car­toon im­age of her­self pad­dling a ca­noe. A few let­ters also have sur­faced, one re­ply­ing to a fan, who wrote her at some un­known junc­ture.

“Just ar­rived home from a two weeks visit to New York and find­ing your let­ter here from N.Y. will an­swer now for it has been here some time. The plea­sure is all mine to send you one of my postals, and also thank­ing you for your kind wishes & suc­cess. I’m never too busy to an­swer a let­ter from friends. I hope you will get to see me in my se­ries of In­dian pic­tures. I will be fea­tured by the ‘Cal­i­for­nia fea­ture film Co.’ The brand is the ‘Dark­feather fea­ture Co.’ I re­main.”

Dark­feather is buried at Holy Cross Ceme­tery in Cul­ver City, Cal­i­for­nia. For many years, her grave re­mained un­marked, but Neilson re­cently laid down a sim­ple head­stone read­ing “Josephine M. Work­man, ‘Princess Mona Dark­feather.’ ”

Be­cause so many of her films are now lost, the re­dis­cov­ery of Princess Mona Dark­feather’s ground­break­ing sta­tus in cin­e­matic his­tory has been slow in com­ing. Much of the in­ter­est has come from his­to­ri­ans in Los An­ge­les, as her grand­fa­ther, Wil­liam Work­man, was one of the city’s early may­ors. Paul R. Pitzzeri, writ­ing in the blog for Los An­ge­les’ Home­stead Mu­seum, says he knew noth­ing about her un­til he saw a sin­gle ref­er­ence to her in a 1980s mag­a­zine for silent film fans. That led him to re­search her life — he ul­ti­mately con­nected with Neilson and mounted a Dark­feather ex­hibit at the Home­stead Mu­seum.

Neilson wrote an in­tro­duc­tory state­ment for the show, ex­plain­ing with some emo­tion: “Princess Mona Dark­feather, my great-aunt, be­came some­thing of a ge­nealog­i­cal ob­ses­sion with me. Her story was rather sad. She had risen to the heights of silent film star­dom only to be, in the end [near her death], taken from her home by a court-ap­pointed guardian and ul­ti­mately buried in an un­marked grave and for­got­ten.”

Jon Bow­man I For The New Mex­i­can

From top, Princess Mona Dark­feather in The Oath of Con­chita (1913); Dark­feather at the Lib­erty Theater, Ta­coma, Wash­ing­ton, 1918;

A For­est Romance (1913); Princess Red Wing and di­rec­tor James Young Deer (cen­ter, front) and the cast on the set of 1909’s The Fall­ing Ar­row; above left and op­po­site page, por­traits of Dark­feather

Princess Red Wing

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