Actor Is Suspected of Falsely Claiming to Be an American Indian Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

American Indian journalist and activist Buffalo Child Long Lance starred in a silent film with an American Indian cast. Before the film’s release, however, rumors circulated that he was actually an African American, not a Native American. The scandal led to his ostracization, seclusion, and suicide. Historians have used the scandal to debate issues such as contested racial and ethnic identities, “Indianness,” and cultural impersonation.

Summary of Event

In the Roaring Twenties, one of the best-known American Indians in North America was journalist, activist, and future actor Buffalo Child Long Lance, chief of the Bloods, one of the four nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy of the northwestern United States and western Canada. His life story was so impressive that he reached eager readers and listeners from indigenous and nonindigenous communities. [kw]Actor Is Suspected of Falsely Claiming to Be an American Indian (1928-1929) Buffalo Child Long Lance Burden, William Douglas Tolstoy, Ilia Native Americans Buffalo Child Long Lance Burden, William Douglas Tolstoy, Ilia Native Americans [g]United States;1928-1929: Actor Is Suspected of Falsely Claiming to be an American Indian[00430] [g]Canada;1928-1929: Actor Is Suspected of Falsely Claiming to be an American Indian[00430] [c]Hoaxes, frauds, and charlatanism;1928-1929: Actor Is Suspected of Falsely Claiming to be an American Indian[00430] [c]Social issues and reform;1928-1929: Actor Is Suspected of Falsely Claiming to be an American Indian[00430] [c]Publishing and journalism;1928-1929: Actor Is Suspected of Falsely Claiming to be an American Indian[00430] [c]Murder and suicide;1928-1929: Actor Is Suspected of Falsely Claiming to be an American Indian[00430] Yellow Robe, Chauncey

In 1927, Long Lance was offered a contract by the publisher Cosmopolitan to write his autobiography. The book, Long Lance: The Autobiography of a Blackfoot Indian Chief (1928), chronicled his life from infancy—during the last years of fighting against the Crows and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police—until his decision to protect the Blackfoot culture by embracing white civilization through education. The autobiography became an immediate best seller in Canada, the United States, and England and was translated into Dutch and German. By 1928, Long Lance became a frequent sight in posh restaurants, theaters, opera houses, and the homes of New York City’s wealthy elites. Dressed in top hat and tails, he entertained hosts and guests with American Indian folklore, songs, sign language, and dances. His popularity and notoriety would cause his downfall.

Long Lance signed on for the lead acting role in a film planned by producer and naturalist William D. Burden, who wanted to portray the harsh lives of Canada’s indigenous peoples before the arrival of European technology and science. Long Lance was to be the star in an “all full-blooded Indian cast.” The film, The Silent Enemy (1930), portrays a group of Ojibwa (Chippewa) peoples starving to death before the arrival of the seasonal caribou migration. During the film’s editing stages, costar-adviser Chauncey Yellow Robe, a chief of the Rosebud Sioux, privately shared with Burden his doubts about Long Lance’s identity as an American Indian.

Yellow Robe was convinced that Long Lance did not grow up in the Bloods community. Long Lance did not know tepee etiquette, his tribal dances were not authentic, and his sign language made no sense. He was loud and boisterous, behavior that offended cast members, and he was always punctual, another oddity. Yellow Robe suspected that Long Lance was white. Burden, fearing that his all-Indian cast would be compromised and his film discredited, launched an investigation of Long Lance’s past.

Long Lance’s autobiography shows that he had been immersed in American Indian and Western culture as a youth. At an early age he worked on cattle ranches in Alberta, Canada, and Montana and rode with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. He graduated from the famed Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, where he played on the football team with the legendary athlete Jim Thorpe. U.S. president Woodrow Wilson appointed Long Lance to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, making him only the second American Indian to receive such an appointment. From West Point, Long Lance returned to Canada, enlisted in the Canadian army, and served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in France during World World War I[World War 01];Canadian Expeditionary Force War I. After being wounded three times, he was awarded France’s Croix de Guerre, promoted to the rank of lieutenant, and transferred to an intelligence unit in Italy. In Italy he was promoted to captain and awarded the Italian War Cross. Upon returning to Canada in 1919, he began a career as a journalist in Calgary, Alberta.

Long Lance started his career as a general reporter, but he demonstrated talent for sports reporting and for feature writing about Canada’s indigenous peoples. In the first half of the 1920’s, he worked at several newspapers in western Canada and spent weeks at a time on different Indian reserves (known as reservations in the United States). His detailed reports resembled anthropological fieldwork and were read widely in Canada. In a short time his stories went beyond descriptions of the disappearance of traditional lifestyles to accounts of high death rates from diseases and the institutional neglect and abuse at the hands of the federal government in Canada.

When invited to speak to Native American communities, Long Lance spoke of the importance of education and adapting to white civilization without giving up indigenous cultures and values. He further advocated that the scattered indigenous communities unite with the fledgling allied tribes movement to recover lost lands and to pressure the government to deliver services denied but required by treaty and law. Newspapers and magazines in Canada and the United States purchased articles from him, and he became a popular speaker throughout Canada and the American Midwest. In his talks he explained to white audiences the rich heritage of the Plains cultures and how indigenous peoples suffered at the hands of the negligent government agencies required to protect them. His speaking and writing made him a celebrity.

In 1928, an investigation inadvertently triggered by Cosmopolitan discovered that Long Lance’s autobiography was fictional. Investigators found that when Long Lance first arrived in Alberta in 1919, he had identified himself as a Cherokee from Oklahoma. His adoption by the Bloods in 1922 had been honorary, but it gave him no claims on Blood property, rights, or titles. Burden’s later investigation further exposed Long Lance’s fabricated public persona. Long Lance’s highest rank in the Canadian army had been corporal, and he never received medals for valor, from any nation. He did receive a presidential appointment to West Point but never attended the academy. He did graduate from Carlisle but was not on the famous football team with Thorpe. Long Lance’s name did not appear on the roster of any Cherokee tribe, and the Cherokee students at Carlisle regarded him as more African American than Cherokee. He had added Chahuska and Lance to his given name, Sylvester Clark Long, to make his name appear Cherokee. When confronted with this evidence, Long Lance insisted that he was a Cherokee who had been adopted by the Long family of Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Burden sent the film’s coproducer, and Long Lance’s friend, Ilia Tolstoy to Winston-Salem to examine the adoption story. Tolstoy learned that Long Lance was not adopted but was born to Joe Long and Sallie Carson Long on December 1, 1890. Both parents were of mixed American Indian and white ancestry and denied that their antecedents were African or African American. William Blair, a prominent white banker, told Tolstoy that when the Longs came to Winston (as it was then called) during the 1880’s, everyone in the white community understood them to be American Indian. They were treated as “colored” because the segregation system had two categories only, but they were not African American. Burden was greatly relieved and continued his promotional campaign.

Impact

Long Lance’s performance in The Silent Enemy brought great praise, but rumors that he was African American and not American Indian circulated throughout New York City. He was all but shunned and was left off the lists of invitees for social events. Offers to write or speak stopped coming in as well, but one woman, Anita Baldwin, continued to believe in him.

Baldwin, one of the wealthiest women in the United States and a student of American Indian culture, hired Long Lance as her body guard and private secretary at her three-thousand-acre ranch near Los Angeles. Long Lance tried to remake himself by earning a pilot’s license. He planned to buy his own airplane and take part in archaeological expeditions in Latin America, but he despaired of raising enough money.

However, Long Lance frequently disappeared for days at a time and returned to the ranch drunk and violent. At the end of one binge, on March 30, 1932, he fatally shot himself with his own pistol. The news and manner of his death shocked those who knew him. After a short time of speculation that Long Lance had been murdered, his name disappeared from the news. The Silent Enemy was all but forgotten. It was one of the last of the silent films and did poorly at the box office.

No attempt was made to investigate thoroughly the rumors of Long Lance’s family background. The literary and film communities embraced the barriers of segregation and distanced themselves from him, even though he was a great communicator and champion of the rights of American and Canadian Indians. In a short time, Long Lance’s name and his film The Silent Enemy were unrecognized beyond the circle of those who knew him. Buffalo Child Long Lance Burden, William Douglas Tolstoy, Ilia Native Americans

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Browder, Laura. Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. Examines ethnic impersonation in American history. Argues that ethnic impersonation was a means to class mobility, social inclusion, and escape from an often brutal past.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cook, Nancy. “The Scandal of Race: Authenticity, The Silent Enemy, and the Problem of Long Lance.” In Headline Hollywood: A Century of Film Scandal, edited by Adrienne L. McLean and David A. Cook. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2001. Argues that the real scandal was not impersonation but a racist society that impelled Long Lance to resort to false identities to emphasize his American Indian heritage.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Donald B. Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance: The Glorious Imposter. Red Deer, Alta.: Red Deer Press, 1999. Based on archival work and interviews, Smith’s initial effort to piece together the colorful but tragic career of Long Lance.

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