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Native History: ‘The World’s Fastest Indian’ Opens in Theaters

This Date in Native History: On February 3, 2006, “The World’s Fastest Indian” opened in movie theaters throughout the United States. The “Fastest Indian” refers to a 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle. The rider was New Zealander Burt Munro who was not indigenous, but whose fortitude, creativity, and determination to succeed against all odds made him a cult hero in New Zealand. After breaking speed records in Australia and New Zealand, Munro put all of his efforts into breaking the world speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

Known as an eccentric curmudgeon, Munro lived and worked alone in his garage. Designing parts—he melted down old pistons to create new ones—cooling the molten metal in the same tank of water he used to make tea.

Often the butt of neighborhood jokes, Munro’s motorcycle needed to be rebuilt after every 10 minutes of running time. There were no brakes or other safety equipment. The bike was built successfully for speed and to this day, some of Munro’s world records still stand.

Burt Munro had a push from others to get his Indian Scout motorcycle going but once he did, he broke world records for speed.

Munro was born on March 25, 1899, in the town of Invercargill, New Zealand. “One of the last places you can be before you end up in Antarctica,” laughed Keith Flamank, a New Zealander in Los Angeles, president of the Acme Ad Agency and KIWI, a club for New Zealanders in Los Angeles. “He was a bit of an odd one. He raced on the beaches and was very fast. He had no money but he managed to get himself to Bonneville. It was his whole dream and ambition,” he said.

Munro paid for his first trip to the United States in 1962 by working as a cook aboard a cargo ship. Even at 63 years of age, Munro was adept at snagging women and pushing the rules, but he was known for his kindness and lack of judgment towards his fellow human beings.

Constantly popping pills to treat his heart condition, Munro—played by Anthony Hopkins in the film—was an underdog who rose to every challenge. A rowdy band of young motorcyclists mocked him when he couldn’t turn his 16-foot long, torpedo-shaped bike around a sharp corner. Yet those same riders raised money to help him get to Bonneville.

Befriending a cross-dressing hotel clerk who eventually reveals he is a man, Munro never wavers, continuing to treat the clerk with affection and respect. Picking up friends all along the way, Munro also meets Jake, a Native American played by Saginaw Grant, who offers Munro a turquoise pendant for luck and a bag of ground dog testicles to treat his prostate. “Tastes terrible,” Grant exclaims squeamishly as he hands over a small medicine pouch.

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Saginaw Grant and Anthony Hopkins in a still from the movie, "The World's Fastest Indian."

According to the Indian Motorcycle website honoring Munro he set an official land speed record of 183.586 mph, and posted an unofficial top speed of 205.67 mph on his 47-year-old Indian Scout motorcycle that had been built for a top speed of 55 mph. Munro was inducted into the American Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2006, and his motorcycle was displayed at the 2012 Long Beach International Motorcycle Show.

Indian Motorcycle has released a new motorcycle honoring Munro called the “Spirit of Munro,” hand-built by Jeb Scolman of Jeb’s Metal and Speed in Long Beach, California.

The "Spirit of Munro" is Indian Motorcycle's new motorcycle honoring Munro.

Indian motorcycles were the first motorcycles built in America, and the company has had a long history of honoring the country’s first people. Robert Pandya, manager of external relations for Polaris, which now owns the Indian Motorcycle brand, said, “Polaris Industries continues to work with Native American cultural advisors to maintain a positive association.” He added, “We work hard to educate our dealers and partners to maintain that positive position.”

The company was owned by Canadian businessman Murray Smith before Polaris purchased it. Native actor Branscombe Richmond was the spokesman and vice president of the company’s Office of Indian Affairs. Richmond enjoyed working with Smith. “He got it,” Richmond said, meaning Smith understood the importance of involving Natives in the brand and giving back.

At that time, the company gave the name its positive image by doing concerts with well-known Native performers and creating the Crazy Horse Memorial Ride. “We did so many wonderful things, we sponsored Native American law enforcement. Every month we put $5,000 into Indian country, for drug and alcohol abuse or concerts, we sponsored the NAMMYs, we sponsored the Institute of American Indian Arts, the American Indian Museum in Washington, we gave away scholarships. We did it because that was the spiritual thing to do. If you didn’t do it,” Richmond said, “there is a legacy in Indian country that would keep wagging their finger at you for not being respectful.”

At one point, a member of the board of directors told Richmond he was concerned about making the Indian brand about race. Richmond said, “You don't have to worry about that because it’s called Indian Motorcycles, and it is a race. Embrace it, man, the more you give away the more it comes back to you. Follow the Red Road.”