The Lillian St. Cyr Story, Part 3: New York City

Photo Courtesy Marc Wanamaker/Bison Archives. Lillian St. Cyr with co-star Dustin Farnum in the 1914 silent film 'The Squaw Man.'

Angela Aleiss

Nearly ten years after The Squaw Man, Native actress Lillian St. Cyr left Hollywood and headed toward New York City.

“We all knew each other,” says Lillian’s great nephew Louis Mofsie of the city’s then-growing Indian population.

Mofsie’s older sister Josephine was a close friend to Muriel Miguel of the Spiderwoman Theater, a group of three urban Native women who continue to perform using storytelling mixed with humor and personal experience.

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But except for a sizable Caugnawaga Mohawk population of steelworkers who had settled in Brooklyn, the city’s Indian people lacked a unified presence. Initially, only two groups in the city, the Indian League of the Americas and the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers, offered Natives a community.

Years later, the American Indian Community House would emerge as the leading urban Native resource in the New York City tri-state area. Mofsie was one of its founders. “Lillian was actively involved in helping us start it,” he explains.

Lillian eventually settled in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and Mofsie’s family lived nearby. He recalls that she remained active and “would keep herself quite busy” making Indian outfits and entertaining children. For a while, she worked on Indian costumes for FAO Schwarz and Eaves Costume Company.

“My impression of my aunt is she would take on things. She wasn’t held back by herself. She wasn’t shy or anything,” Mofsie says.

A 1931 Universal Newspaper Newsreel shows Lillian performing a short skit in which she sits inside her tipi high atop a New York City skyscraper. She later dons an elaborate Plains war bonnet and waves graciously to the construction men.

“Far out,” says tribal historian David Lee Smith of the video. “Our women didn’t wear feathers in their hair, and they didn’t live in tipis.”

But Linda M. Waggoner, a scholar of ethnic studies, says that beneath the showmanship and costumes there’s still a resistance. “She really tries to educate people wherever she goes about Native culture,” explains Waggoner, who is currently working on a biography of Lillian St. Cyr. “She knows how to play the game but makes damn sure they learn something about Native culture.”

Lillian continued to lecture and perform in New York City until her death on March 13, 1974. She was buried in St. Augustine Cemetery in Nebraska.

“There’s not a lot of Indian women who were movie stars. [Lillian] was a kind of pioneer the way she kept adapting herself to the situation,” Waggoner adds. “I feel she was never a victim.”

For Mofsie of the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers, Lillian’s legacy was personal. “She had a great influence on me,” he says. “She gave me inspiration beyond a performer.”