A Century Ago: Sylvester Joins the Blackfeet

December 1 was the birthday of Sylvester Clark Long, otherwise known as Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance (1890-1932. The Chief’s heyday was the late ’20s and early ’30s, when he published a popular memoir Long Lance (1928) and co-starred in the Paramount film The Silent Enemy (1930), a story set amongst the Ojibwe. As a result of these projects his calendar was full of lucrative speaking engagements and other public appearances, and an endorsement deal with B.F. Goodrich. Then in early 1932, he ended it all with a bullet to the head.

Why? His biography and his public persona were mostly fictional, although it is misleading to label him an “imposter” as many did and do. Long was a mixed race person person of color from North Carolina, part white, park black and 1/16 Croatan Indian. What appears to have happened is that he made use of a series of untruths, small at first but increasingly large, to improve his situation. Would YOU identify as black in Jim Crow North Carolina if there were other options?

The first subterfuge was to exaggerate the extent of his Native American heritage, and to identify as Cherokee rather than Croatan, for who had ever heard of the latter? He began performing with Wild West Shows and then attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which was far better than any all-black segregated public school he might have attended in North Carolina. After military service, he emigrated to Canada, still representing himself as a Native American, for black immigration was discouraged. He worked for three years as a reporter and columnist for the Calgary Herald, claiming to be a Cherokee from Oklahoma, the next amplification of his lie. While Cherokees were native to North Carolina, and small numbers (known as the “Eastern Band”) remained in the state, most people knew that the bulk of the Cherokee people had been marched to Oklahoma on the infamous “Trail of Tears” years earlier.

Then in 1922 he was adopted by the local Blackfeet Indians. The rationale is that he had been away from his native tribe since adolescence. If he was to advocate for the Blackfeet, as he had been doing, it would make sense to do so as one of them, and so he began to identify as one. And then THIS became amplified to a new fictional narrative which claimed that he had always been one, and that he was full-blooded. And that story became the basis of his biography.

Towards the end of his life, these facts were exposed, and his life began to unravel. Rather than continue to live with the disgrace, loss of income, and so forth, he opted to join his ancestors. Which to my mind, if anything, is an indication of his integrity and honesty. For the TRUE fraudster would have shamelessly gone on to write and lecture about the swindle itself and enter a new phase of notoriety. This appears to more a sad case of a guy trying to improve his station, yielding to temptation as opportunities came along, not some dyed-in-the-wool grifter looking to fleece the public for a payday. His father had been a janitor. That might have been Sylvester’s fate. Instead he became Chief Buffalo Long Lance and attended white society parties in New York. I tell you bluntly there’s not a chance in hell I wouldn’t have done the same.