The discovery of a film long believed to be lost is always cause for celebration.
With the discovery of Daughter of Dawn, it was not only a piece of film history that was recovered, but also a glimpse of a way of life that’s ever in danger of receding from the memory of a people.
In 2016 we’re still contending with a dearth of First Nations faces and stories on our screens—and with the institutionalized racism that allows this dearth to persist. So it’s that much more remarkable to be able to see a narrative film made in 1920 whose entire cast is made up of Kiowa and Comanche actors, wearing their own clothing and carrying their own personal items. The return of Daughter of Dawn is a major event. You can now find the film on DVD and Blu-ray from Milestone Films, a heroic distribution company whose moniker in this case is very appropriate.
Daughter of Dawn reappeared when a private investigator received a nitrate print from a client in lieu of payment. (Who was that client? Do they have more lost films just lying around?) The Oklahoma Historical Society bought the print from the PI in 2007, commissioned an excellent, rousing score from Comanche composer David Yeagley, and began the arduous process of restoring Daughter of Dawn for exhibition. In 2013 the film was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress.
Directed by Norbert A Myles from a script by Myles and Richard Banks—who according to an opening title card lived among the Kiowa for 25 years—Daughter of Dawn tells the story of a Kiowa community in danger of starvation, and the love triangle that surfaces during this time of strife. Black Wolf (Jack Sankadota) wants to wed Daughter of Dawn (Esther LeBarre), the chief’s daughter, and he’s got plenty of ponies to buttress his candidacy. But Daughter of Dawn loves White Eagle (White Parker), who has only his good-natured self to offer. More concerned with integrity than wealth, the chief devises a pretty brutal test of strength and will to determine who’s the better man. Meanwhile bison are found—the hunt is among the film’s most spectacular sequences—and it’s revealed that some neighbouring Comanche are hoarding goods.
As I compare the names of the characters with those of the actors, I can’t help but imagine a version of the film that tells this story through a less antiquated or cocooned, more socially integrated, contemporaneous lens. How did Sankadota, LeBarre and Parker live? Were the Kiowa and Comanche of the 1920s still living exactly as depicted in the film? But if that were the case then perhaps Daughter of Dawn would have less value as a document of vanishing languages and rituals, which are some of the elements praised by Kiowa Dorothy Whitehorse and Kiowa-Comanche filmmaker Darren Twohatchet in two of several supplements offering welcome context on Milestone’s release. Twohatchet points out the obvious virtue of being able to look back to a film from the silent era in which the Indians are more than mere antagonists for the prevailing cowboys.
If we can have stories like Daughter of Dawn returning to us from almost a century ago, surely there’s room for more First Nations narratives now. V