Silent film buffs may be all abuzz about the restored Edward S. Curtis' In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914) , but claims that it was the "first" feature with an all-native cast have been exaggerated—in fact, the historical record shows that the first feature film to include a Native cast was Frank E. Moore's Hiawatha (1913). Moore's dramatization of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 epic poem The Song of Hiawatha was actually released more than a year before the Curtis film.
Hiawatha also includes a musical score by John J. Braham, Sr., the same composer for In the Land of the Head Hunters.
The American Film Institute Catalog of Feature Films says that Hiawatha was initially four reels (35mm) with a running time of approximately 40 minutes.
Production still showing Jesse Cornplanter, published in Moving Picture News (Jan-Jun 1913). Cornplanter was identified as 'one of the handsomest men ever seen in moving pictures' by the author. Source: Internet Archive.
Newspapers boasted of Hiawatha's 150 "full-blooded" Seneca of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) from the Cattaraugus Reservation in upstate New York. The role of Hiawatha went to Seneca actor-turned-artist Jesse Cornplanter, a descendent of the 18th-century Seneca war chief and diplomat Cornplanter. Jesse later fought with the U.S. Army in World War I and collaborated as an illustrator with the renowned ethnographer/archaeologist Arthur C. Parker.
Soon-Goot, supposedly an unknown 17-year-old Indian actress, played Minnehaha.
Moving Picture World described Hiawatha as “a breath of fresh air" because it used real Indians and not the made-up Hollywood variety. As for the young Cornplanter, Moving Picture News dubbed him "a real matinee idol."
Soon-Goot as Minnehaha, published in Moving Picture News (Jan-Jun 1913).
That’s no surprise to David George-Shongo, Acting Director of the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum in Salamanca, NY. "Jesse's always been famous for his writing and artistry," says George-Shongo by phone. "He was the author of Legends of the Longhouse (1938), and he was a good singer."
For a decade before the making of Hiawatha, producer Moore had been touring his open-air "passion play" version throughout the East and Midwest, traveling by railroad from one town to the next with his Native cast. For his film, he hired former stage actor Edgar Lewis to direct.
But alas, the whereabouts of the complete four-reel version of Hiawatha remain a mystery. The Motion Picture, Broadcasting & Recorded Sound Division in the Library of Congress owns only an abridged copy of the film.
An earlier one-reel version of Hiawatha appeared in 1909 by Carl Laemmle, Sr., who later founded Universal Pictures. Years later, Laemmle acknowledged that his “white cast smeared with bronze paint” was a target for ridicule, although Hiawatha was well received for its time. In a departure from Longfellow's poem, Laemmle’s story ends with Hiawatha and Minnehaha happily embracing.
But Moore's Hiawatha instead follows Longfellow's poem: Minnehaha dies and Hiawatha welcomes the arrival of the Black Robe (a missionary), who converts the Indians to the Christian faith.
The American Museum of Natural History in New York City apparently saw educational appeal with Hiawatha and lent its expertise. One of the movie’s highlights was a healing ritual of the sacred Iroquois False-Face Society.
As for George-Shongo, he's tired of non-Native actors who look like they were "dunked" in some kind of dye, so he was happy Cornplanter played Hiawatha. "For me, it was great to see this young guy who was a real Indian and not some ‘dunkin' Indian’ made to look brown," he says.