"Custer's Last Stand": Chief Thundercloud vs. young Paleface Bobby Nelson
Thundercloud is not a nice guy in "Custer's Last Stand." His character is so treacherous and bloodthirsty that it's hard to imagine the actor was about to become one of Hollywood's quintessential "good Indians."
Promo still for "Custer's Last Stand": Chief Thundercloud with Nancy Caswell
I get a kick out of the expression on Thundercloud's face in this promo shot for the serial. I can't help but wonder what he had in mind before Nancy Caswell produced her big six-shooter.
Chief Thundercloud would go on two years later to become the original "Tonto" of the movies, starring in the 1938 Republic serial "The Lone Ranger" along with its 1939 sequel, "The Lone Ranger Rides Again."
Chief Thundercloud as Tonto
For those of us who grew up with Jay Silverheels' kid-friendly interpretation of Tonto, Thundercloud's version still comes off as a bit of a big scary meanie.
Chief Thundercloud on the Uncle Russ children's radio program
Born Victor Daniels in 1899, Thundercloud claimed at times to be either Cherokee or Creek/Muscogee. While his Native American heritage has never been nailed down, his "Chief" status is pure Hollywood hype.
Chief Thundercloud on the Upper Iverson in "The Phantom Rider" (1946)
Thundercloud's prolific film career, spanning 1935-1956 and including 76 movies along with numerous TV appearances, brought him back to the Iverson Ranch on many occasions — often in bad guy or "savage" roles.
Chief Thundercloud in the title role of "Geronimo!" (1939)
Tonto was one of two career-defining roles for Thundercloud in the late 1930s. He followed up his "Lone Ranger" serials with a tour-de-force performance as Geronimo in Paramount's 1939 movie about the Apache warrior.
Poster for "Geronimo!" — Where's Chief Thundercloud's credit?
Curiously, Chief Thundercloud's credit was omitted from much of the marketing material for "Geronimo!," even though he played the title role.
Chuck Connors as "Geronimo" (United Artists, 1962)
The role of Geronimo would later be played by Chuck Connors, who was moonlighting at the time from his day job on "The Rifleman."
The real Geronimo
The real Geronimo spent his later years as a prisoner of war and a tourist attraction, traveling under Army guard and becoming one of the most widely photographed Americans of his era.
Chief Thunderbird in 1935
Born Richard Davis in 1866, Thunderbird, a Cheyenne chief, had a film career going back at least to 1914, with many of his appearances uncredited.
By the time "Custer's Last Stand" was filmed in 1935, Chief Thunderbird was pushing 70 and had become something of a patriarch to the Native American actors of the period.
Chief John Big Tree with Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert in "Drums Along the Mohawk" (1939)
A member of the Seneca Nation, Big Tree was reportedly born Isaac Johnny John in 1877. He became one of director John Ford's go-to Native American actors, appearing in a string of Ford movies including "Stagecoach," "Drums Along the Mohawk" and "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon."
Big Tree in uncredited role in "Stagecoach" (1939)
He was uncredited in Ford's "Stagecoach" in the role of an Indian scout who wore a cool "Indian Police" star and dressed up like a Cavalry soldier.
Indian Head Nickel, first issued in 1913: NOT Chief Big Tree
Besides appearing in more than 60 movies going back to the silent era, Big Tree became the focus of a number of myths and legends — including his own claim that he was the model for the Indian Head Nickel.
Chief Big Tree on the cover of Esquire, 1964
The claim, which has since been discredited, was widely believed for years — with Big Tree even appearing on the cover of Esquire magazine in 1964 as part of a feature perpetuating the false claim.
Promo material for the early Western talkie "Red Fork Range" (1931)
Big Tree was apparently encouraged by the Hollywood studios to cash in on his image as the Indian on the nickel, whether it was true or not.
James Earle Fraser, designer of the Indian Head Nickel, working on Benjamin Franklin
Fraser himself refuted Big Tree's claim of being involved in the nickel, including explaining that the image was a composite. But controversy over the identities of the models for the nickel has never been fully resolved.
Adoeette — aka Big Tree: Kiowa war chief
That's at least in part because Fraser's own recollection "evolved" over the course of his life. By the time the sculptor died in 1953, he had apparently settled on the story that one of the models for the nickel was in fact named "Big Tree" — but it was a different Big Tree, the Kiowa war chief also known as Adoeette.
"The End of the Trail" (James Earle Fraser sculpture, 1915)
A similar controversy surrounded Chief John Big Tree and "The End of the Trail," one of Fraser's best-known sculptures. Big Tree claimed to be the model for the artwork — another claim that is widely regarded as false.
"Custer's Last Stand": Carl Mathews as True Eagle
This is what Mathews looks like as True Eagle in a different scene in the serial. Mathews, a prolific actor and stuntman, worked in well over 200 movies in a career spanning 1930-1957.
Carl Mathews, left, gets under Dennis Moore's skin in "Black Market Rustlers" (1943)
Mathews typically played non-Indian characters, frequently working uncredited, and almost as often as not, appearing in the uncelebrated role of "henchman."
The beautiful Dorothy Gulliver was a pretty big star in the 1920s and 1930s, including playing the heroine in serials both before and after the arrival of sound. She was once married to Danny DeVito's father, Chester DeVito.
Dorothy Gulliver with Rin Tin Tin in a promo shot for "A Dog of the Regiment" (1927)
Gulliver starred opposite some of the biggest stars of the era — none bigger than Rin Tin Tin. (Click here to read our recent post about Rin Tin Tin's adventures on the Iverson Movie Ranch.)
Dorothy Gulliver puts the heat on Roy D'Arcy in "The Shadow of the Eagle" (1932)
In this lobby card for Mascot's early sound serial "The Shadow of the Eagle," Dorothy demonstrates that empowered female characters aren't an entirely new idea in Hollywood.
Yakima Canutt, seen standing next to B-Western workhorse Bud Osborne. Osborne chalked up something like 600 credits over a 50-year career.
John Wayne snuggles with Dorothy Gulliver in "The Shadow of the Eagle"
Gulliver starred opposite John Wayne in "The Shadow of the Eagle." Some of her other leading men around that time were Hoot Gibson, Lon Chaney Jr., Jack Hoxie, Bill Elliott, Rex Lease, Tim McCoy and Red Grange.
Dorothy Gulliver with Kenneth Harlan in "Under Montana Skies" (1930)
Much of Gulliver's work was in Westerns, including Tiffany's early talkie "Under Montana Skies."
Howling Wolf as Sitting Bull in "Custer's Last Stand"
The little-known Native American actor Howling Wolf — no relation to bluesman Howlin' Wolf — plays Sitting Bull in "Custer's Last Stand," but I've been unable to make a positive ID on him in the lobby card.
Iron Eyes Cody as Brown Fox in "Custer's Last Stand"
Famed actor and Iverson Movie Ranch regular Iron Eyes Cody plays Brown Fox in the movie. IMDb suggests that Iron Eyes is in the lobby card, but I haven't been able to find him — my hunch is he isn't in the shot.
Famous "Crying Indian" anti-pollution ad from the 1970s, featuring Iron Eyes Cody
Readers may be surprised — I know I was — to learn that Iron Eyes Cody, if not the most famous of all "Native American" actors, at least high on the list, was not in fact Native American, but was of Italian heritage.