Princess Red Wing and James Young Deer: Native American Movie Pioneers


February 13, 1884 was the likely natal day of Lillian Margaret St. Cyr, though some sources say the less likely 1873, which would have made her 101 at the time of her death. This “Lilly” is quite a different one from burlesque star Lili St Cyr, whose real name was Willis Marie Van Schaack). The one in question was known professionally as Red Wing, or Princess Red Wing, and is best known for co-starring in Cecil B. DeMille’s landmark feature The Squaw Man (1914).

This St. Cyr was of the Winnebago tribe and born on their Nebraska reservation. After attending Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School she worked for a time as a domestic in the Washington DC townhouse of Senator Chester Long of Kansas. While in his employee she met a fellow servant named James Young Johnson (1876-1946), a member of the Nanticoke tribe. In 1906 the pair married and became a performing couple, adopting the professional names Princess Red Wing and James Young Deer. That year they joined several dozen Sioux (or “Sioux”) in the large scale spectacle entitled Pioneer Days: A Spectacle Drama of Western Life, a wild west show at New York’s Hippodrome Theater. This led to engagements at private society gatherings, where the couple would sing and dance with a small group of others, all posing as “Sioux” (a pretty common artifice, then and now. Sioux bands were among the last to yield to American authorities in the Indian Wars, and they did so quite spectacularly, in battles like Custer’s Last Stand. So it was common for performing Native Americans, even ones from other tribes, to garb themselves as Plains Indians. That signifier became almost universal in the movies, and some entertainers still practice it.)

By 1909 the pair were working steadily in films for studios like Bison and Kalem. Initially both were actors, and they often starred in their own vehicles, with their names right in the titles. By 1910, Young Deer was also directing for Pathé Frères Both have scores of films to their credit, mostly between the years 1909 and 1916.

The Squaw Man (1914) was the pinnacle of Red Wing’s career (although DeMille reportedly sought Mona Darkfeather for the part originally). At the same time she was enjoying her greatest success, however, Young Deer was in serious trouble for an apparent case of statutory rape. His career only lasted a couple of years beyond this, and he and Red Wing Broke up. She was only in a few additional movies: In the Days of the Thundering Herd (1914) with Tom Mix, Fighting Bob (1915), and the 1916 version of Ramona. By the ’20s she was working as a crowd extra in films like White Oak (1921) with William S. Hart.

With demand for her services in Hollywood dwindling, Red Wing joined a sister and niece in New York City where she lived out the rest of her days. Louis Mofsie of Thunderbird American Dancers is her great-nephew!


To learn more about Red Wing and Young Deer, the premiere source has got to be the recent book Starring Red Wing! The Incredible Career of Lillian M. St. Cyr, the First Native American Film Star by Linda M. Waggoner, published by University of Nebraska Press. Order it here.

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To learn more about the variety arts, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.