Above is an image of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre taken in the 1930s. At one point in the thirties, if you had looked across the street from this iconic structure of Hollywood’s Golden Age, perhaps towards where the photographer stood, you would have seen the American Indian Art Shop, a store that also served as a gathering place for Hollywood’s Native American community. The shop was owned and operated by Mary Simmons (who performed under the name White Bird), who moved to Hollywood in 1924 and later married Yakima actor Daniel Simmons (Chief Yowlachie). The two would become important figures in organizing and bringing public attention to a community of Native performers in Hollywood during the late 1920s and early 1930s. Their work and the significance of White Bird's shop as Native community space is the subject of my contribution to a recent In Focus section in JCMS about “Indigenous Performance Networks: Media, Community, Activism.” What follows serves as an enlarged abstract of my piece titled “On Hollywood Boulevard: Native Community in Classical Hollywood."
My In Focus contribution briefly examines how the American Indian Art Shop served as a hub for Native performers in the industry during the late 1920s and 1930s. I also present the Simmonses as one example of how Native community was built in Studio Hollywood, and the ways their community-building was related to complex negotiations between on- and off-screen performance. That White Bird and Yowlachie, “leveraged their positions within the film industry to build community and—through performances, community service, fundraisers, educational programs, and social functions—to publicize their presence, the resilience of Native life, and the value of Native culture in urban modernity.”
For the Simmonses, as well as other Native performers, films were only one site of their performance work, and their films tell us very little about their lives or the breadth of their careers. To reflect this reality, I argue, along with other scholars in this In Focus issue, that it is vital to study their off-screen performance, labor, and activism, and the non-film texts that chronicle that work, in order to better understand and contextualize the careers and experiences of Native actors in Hollywood. As an application of this approach, much of my piece relies on newspaper accounts, primarily from society columns, to chronicle their off-screen work in Hollywood, and suggest its relationship to their place in the film industry.
The events held at the American Indian Art Shop illustrate the relationship between community, space, activism, and film labor. In addition to operating as a store, and serving as a community space, it was also the location of White Bird’s casting office for Native film performers. Her efforts to connect Native actors to producers and casting directors helped lead to formation of The War Paint Club, an organization that assisted Native actors in the film industry and advocated for improved representation of Native Americans in film. The films in which these Native actors appeared typically reinforced narratives of Native erasure, but their offscreen work reasserts Native presence and agency in Hollywood’s history.
For notes and references see:
Jacob Floyd, "On Hollywood Boulevard: Native Community in Classical Hollywood," JCMS 60, no. 2 (Winter 2021): 163-168.