A star was born
Princess Mona Darkfeather
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.”
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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