News Column

Nipo Strongheart exhibit shows pride for his people

August 10, 2014

By Kate Prengaman, Yakima Herald-Republic, Wash.

Aug. 10--TOPPENISH -- In early 20th century America, popular culture portrayed Indians either as violent savages for cowboys to fight or a vanishing race with no place in the modern world.

But by taking advantage of these stereotypes, Nipo Strongheart -- a performer on the 1920s lecture circuit who wore feathered headdresses and tribal regalia -- convinced tens of thousands of people to support the Indian rights movement.

The stacks of signatures now on display at the Yakama Nation Museum in Toppenish are proof of his success.

A new exhibition in tribute to Strongheart's life and legacy was unveiled at the museum last week. The opening also featured a talk from Andrew Fisher, who is working on a book about the performer and activist.

"Strongheart saw an opportunity to use entertainment, the lecture platform, and eventually movies to change people's ideas about native cultures," said Fisher, a history professor at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

He made up stories and told jokes to win audiences over, Fisher said, "but at the end, he would always come back to the message, which was Indian rights."

Born in White Swan on the Yakama reservation in 1891, Strongheart traveled the country performing, meeting with tribes to assess their needs, advocating for the Society for Indian Rights, and working with Hollywood filmmakers.

He's perhaps most famous for his work on the 1925 film "Braveheart," which featured a tribe fighting for its treaty fishing rights against the state and a cannery owner. The situation is likely based on the Yakamas' experience, Fisher said.

"Yes, it's got lots of melodrama and stereotypes," Fisher said of the film. "But the message of the movie is that native people are still here, they have rights, and they aren't going anywhere."

The main character is a young Indian man with a legal education who wins his tribe's rights back. That image of Indians as modern people was rare in popular culture at the time, Fisher said.

Strongheart's success as an Indian activist got off to an unlikely start. He was born George Mitchell Jr., and when his Yakama mother died, his white father raised him away from the tribal culture. His first real exposure to Indians was as a teen, when he performed as a cowboy in the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show.

He befriended the show's Lakota performers and they nicknamed him Nipo. Disillusioned with how Buffalo Bill presented Indians as savages to make money, he reinvented himself, Fisher said.

He christened himself Strongheart and set out to put his skills as an entertainer to more beneficial use, helping the people he had begun to see as his own.

His popular performances helped build support for the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act.

Although he lived most of his adult life in Southern California, where in died in 1966, Strongheart kept close ties with his Yakama roots, making many visits to the reservation and befriending Yakama families who had been relocated to Los Angeles. Several who remembered Strongheart came to the museum event.

Vivian Tomaskin said that Strongheart was like a grandfather to her and her siblings when they were growing up in L.A. Her family moved back to the reservation in 1964.

"I remember him always saying, 'We've got to educate these white people, we're not all riding horses and shooting buffalo," Tomaskin said.

Strongheart also convinced Walt Disney to hire tribal members to perform traditional dances and music at Disneyland instead of using white actors, Tomaskin recalled.

During his travels, visiting tribes across the country, he collected all kinds of things; corn husk bags from Plateau Indians, woven baskets from the Southwest, elegant beadwork from the Northwest, which he donated to the Yakama museum. Some of these gifts are now on display.

"Nipo is the reason we have this whole museum," said Miles Miller, the Yakama Museum director, explaining that Strongheart's donation spurred the tribe to begin developing the museum.


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Source: Yakima Herald-Republic (WA)

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