Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge is famous for incredible fall colors, views from Mount Scott, free–range bison herds, old mountain wilderness and short–grass prairie. It pre–dates Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge as conserved habitat by two years. It is recognized as the historic home of Native Americans, buried treasure, bandits and a mining camp.

Lesser known is that it served as an outdoor movie set for a film with an all–Native American cast. The Daughter of Dawn, an 80–minute silent film, was shot at the refuge in the summer of 1920, an era when Hollywood was only beginning to develop its current story, editing and camera practices.

The film marked the first time Native Americans were used to tell a cinematic story about themselves. There were no actors in makeup, no indistinguishable/inaccurate tribal wear or objects. Members of the Native American cast brought their own clothes, tepees, horses and cultural/religious artifacts to tell the tale of Dawn, the daughter of an Indian chief.

A Love Story

It’s a basic Hollywood love story wherein trials and tribulations lead to a happily–ever–after ending. However, the stars and 300–plus extras all belong to Comanche and Kiowa tribes.

The film was written and directed by West Virginian Norbert Myles and produced by Texan Richard E. Banks. Banks had lived and worked with Native Americans for a quarter–century. He brought authenticity to the script.

The Comanche were nomadic. They separated from the Shoshone tribe and migrated southward in the 1600s. They roamed the southern Great Plains in the 18th and 19th centuries. Their range included parts of New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. The name Comanche is derived from a Ute word meaning “anyone who wants to fight me all the time.” Their staple was buffalo meat. They were excellent horsemen known for raids against other tribes and settlers.

The film showcases Comanche culture, including dress, use of sign language and bareback horse riding. It includes a battle sequence, village scenes, tribal dances and two sequences in which hunters chase down the fabled buffalo herds of Wichita Mountains. Little is known about the actual shoot or refuge involvement with it.

The cast features Ester LeBarre as Dawn. White and Wanada Parker play supporting roles. They were the children of Quanah Parker, the Comanche chief who surrendered his people at Fort Sill, OK, south of Wichita Mountains Refuge, in 1875 after years of battle with U.S. Cavalry.

Photo of 1920 silent film
(Oklahoma Historical Society)

A sneak preview was shown in October 1920 in Los Angeles. But, for unknown reasons, the film was never distributed and thought to be lost.

In 2003, a private investigator in North Carolina ended up with a print of the film. He contacted Brian Hearn of the Oklahoma City Museum of Art in 2005 to offer to sell the film. Through Hearn, the Oklahoma Historical Society purchased it. A fully restored The Daughter of Dawn with a score by David Yeagley premiered at deadCENTER Film Festival in Oklahoma City in June 2012. There are plans to broadcast the film and offer it on DVD, and it is making the rounds of U.S. and international film festivals.

Art Needleman is a visual information specialist in the Southwest Region office in Albuquerque.