One hundred years ago, Winnebago actress Lillian St. Cyr became the first Native woman to star in a feature film.
Cecil B. DeMille’s The Squaw Man was released to American audiences on February 23, 1914, and marked the first time a feature Western was made in what is now Hollywood. Lillian St. Cyr, known by her stage name "Princess Red Wing," played a leading role as a Ute woman caught in an ill-fated marriage with an Englishman.
"She talked about DeMille a lot," says Louis Mofsie (Winnebago) by phone from his New Jersey home. Mofsie, 77, was born in Brooklyn and lived near Lillian when she later settled in New York City. His grandmother Minnie was Lillian’s sister. "I think [Lillian] was very proud of her work there. She had a good time. I think she really enjoyed what she was doing," he adds.
Lillian's older sister Julia St. Cyr (sitting, right) with two Winnebago friends, 1898. Photo Courtesy David Lee Smith.
Lillian’s Hollywood career spanned approximately 15 years, but she worked hard to promote Native culture throughout most of her 90-year life. Relatives recall Lillian as short and stout with dark brown-black hair and a real warmth about her.
Lillian was born on February 13, 1884, on Nebraska’s Winnebago reservation. Back then, tribes had lost much of their land to white settlers, and government agents forcibly removed Native children from their homes to boarding schools.
Lillian’s parents were Julia De Cora (ca. 1846-1885), a Winnebago, and Mitchell St. Cyr (ca. 1834-1888), a farmer whose father was reportedly French Canadian and mother a Sauk.
"Mitchell’s mother remarried Mitchell St. Cyr, Sr. (Winnebago), who adopted her son and renamed him Mitchell St. Cyr, Jr.," says Winnebago tribal historian David Lee Smith.
According to the 1887 tribal census, Lillian had five siblings: David, Julia, Annie, Minnie, and Louis. Smith says that another sister, Pauline, died at a young age. Lillian’s two half-brothers, Levi and Abner, were from Mitchell’s marriage to another woman.
Three of Lillian’s siblings had attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. She entered Carlisle in 1894 and was graduated in 1902.
Mofsie recalls that while Lillian didn’t like being confined to a boarding school, she understood the benefits of an education.
"But Carlisle was very strict. That she didn’t like," he explains. "I always remember her as a very feisty woman. She wanted to be her own person."
Lillian St. Cyr (center) at Carlisle late 1890s with her brother Louis and half brother Levi. Photo Courtesy Cumberland County Historical Society, Carlisle, PA.
Both the De Coras and the descendants of Mitchell St. Cyr left a legacy of talent. Older sister Julia (ca. 1857-1947) was a champion of Indian rights and had graduated from Virginia’s Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University). Lillian’s mother was a cousin to the renowned artist, teacher, and author Angel De Cora (1871-1919). One of Lillian’s relatives, Vincent or "Vince" St. Cyr (1930-1997), acted in Hollywood movies and television for nearly 20 years.
Mofsie recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers, a New York-based dance troupe he helped found.
Lillian would also leave her own legacy. For a while, she lived in Washington, D.C with Kansas Sen. Chester I. Long and his family. Her life changed in 1906 when she married James Young Johnson (Nanticoke), who grew up in Washington, D.C. and had completed a three-year tour with the Navy in the Spanish-American War. James Young Johnson eventually became James Young Deer, and would make a name for himself and his wife in the budding movie industry.
Part Two to follow: Lillian’s Hollywood Years