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
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
"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
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."
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
He befriended the show's Lakota performers and they nicknamed him Nipo. Disillusioned with how
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
Vivian Tomaskin said that Strongheart was like a grandfather to her and her siblings when they were growing up in
"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
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
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