The Daughter of Dawn is more than just another Friday night flick. It is a cinematic wormhole into America’s past.
“The rediscovery of The Daughter of Dawn is a great historical find,” Jeffrey M. Moore of the Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture tells NPR. “Not only is it significant because so few independent films from the silent era survived but it captures a time period often romanticized in a very real and authentic way. The imagery from American Indian culture on the Southern Plains is for the most part presented unfiltered by the non-Indian filmmakers.
In the movie, Moore says, “The viewer gets to see Kiowas and Comanches wearing their traditional clothing without the help of Hollywood wardrobe departments. Besides the scenes on horseback and hunting buffalo, there are scenes of traditional dances being performed that would have been forbidden by the federal government if not for the fact that they were part of the film.”
And the background landscape of the Wichita Mountains, he adds, “gives an environmental purity lost when later films portraying Plains tribes would be filmed in locations like Monument Valley.”
My only caveat to this is that a silent film being an amazing window into the past is not something limited to this film but rather is actually a quite common and wonderful feature of silent film. That’s especially true in the 1910s when people were still figuring out on the fly how to make films and before Hollywood methods and sets were common. So you have street scenes from New York in 1903 that are shocking to the viewer because that’s simply something you don’t expect to see, for example. The Daughter of Dawn is definitely not the only Native American based film that is a must see as well. In fact, there are a lot of really fascinating examinations of Native Americans in silent film. One of the best is the 1929 film Redskin, which is about both the transformation of Navajo culture through the Indian schools and the Navajo-Puebloan divide that went back centuries to the times when the Navajo were raiding the pueblos left and right. The film is actually partially in color, using an early technique that did not allow for the full palette of colors, but was still an amazing advancement (see also the amazing and 100 percent no holds barred exercise in Orientalism 1922 film The Toll of the Sea with Anna Mae Wong for use of early color in silents). Plus the scenes of the Navajo Nation, filmed at Canyon de Chelly and revolving around herding culture are filmed in color and the scenes after the main character is forced to go to an east coast Indian school are in black and white, which is more shocking. He then falls in love with an Acoma girl at the same school. They come back and of course neither are any longer accepted as full tribal members. The final scene consists of a near-battle between the Acoma and Navajo. In order to film this scene, the director had a road built up Acoma Pueblo. For those of you who have visited the Sky City in western New Mexico, this is the road you take today. It was built for a film. So once again, this is a pretty fantastic examination of Native American life, even if it directed by a white person and the main stars are white actors.
There are so many silent films like this. Not only are many silents great films on the merit, but the historical window they present cannot be replicated in any other way and on almost any issue of the day–radical politics, birth control, race, etc.,–you can find weird and wonderful silents.