The Daughter of Dawn: a dull love-triangle story detailing the culture and customs of Kiowa and Comanche peoples

Norbert A Myles, “The Daughter of Dawn” (1920)

Believed to have been lost after initial screenings in 1920, until nearly 100 years late when a private investigator was given some nitrate film reels as payment for work done and passed the reels on to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art – reels of which one was found to contain the film in miraculously good condition – “The Daughter of Dawn” is a remarkable record of the culture and customs of the Comanche and Kiowa indigenous peoples in southwest United States, even as it promotes a glamourised and stereotyped Anglocentric view of these peoples’ lives in a trite and not very interesting love-triangle story. All the actors who appear in this film were members of the Comanche and Kiowa communities which had been living on reservations for about fifty years at the time the film was made. The eponymous Daughter of Dawn (Esther Le Barre) is the daughter of a Kiowa chief who has initially promised her hand in marriage to Black Wolf (Jack Sanka Dota), but her heart has already been lost to another Kiowa brave, White Eagle (White Parker, who in real life was the son of the famous Comanche chief Quanah Parker). Black Wolf is rather jealous of White Eagle and ignores another young woman, Red Wing (Wanada Parker, a daughter of Quanah Parker), who loves him. When Dawn makes her feelings known to her father, the chief compels White Eagle and Black Wolf to undergo a trial of courage that involves considerable personal danger and the possibility of death. White Eagle participates in the trial but barely escapes with his life and body intact while Black Wolf chickens out and is banished from the Kiowa village. Enraged, Black Wolf vows revenge on Dawn and White Eagle, and sneaks off to the nearby Comanche village whose chief and elders have been plotting to raid the Kiowa village and make off with its women.

The plot is threadbare simple and slow, and the characters don’t appear to do very much apart from standing around, conversing and discussing things, performing war dances and racing through the Oklahoma countryside on their ponies. The story apparently takes place during a period when buffalo herds are hard to find and the Kiowa community is almost on the verge of starvation. (No mention of how the Europeans slaughtered the buffalo in an effort to break the spirit of Plains Indian peoples like the Kiowa and the Comanche, and force them to live on reservations and farm for a living?) Naturally the cast of actors has little actual training or experience in acting, and what is seen of their movements looks natural, though with the film being a silent film, some exaggeration in body language and movements is to be expected. A few title cards that help to push the action and provide motivation for various characters’ behaviours flesh out the plot in which a community nearly loses all it has due to the treachery of one of its members.

Viewers can predict that the story does end in happy-ever-after style, at least for Dawn and White Eagle, whereas things do not go so well for their antagonist. One might perhaps have thought the presence of Red Wing and her love for Black Wolf would result in Black Wolf promising to turn over a new leaf and then everyone in the Kiowa village could live amicably, at least in the short term. Then redemption, forgiveness and reconciliation between warring factions and tribes might have been major themes along with a demonstration of a dying indigenous culture and the values it espouses, and the film might have improved noticeably as a result.

The film does suffer from the limitations imposed by the tired story-line, and European-American assumptions and stereotypes about Plains Indian peoples also skew what could have been an accurate, almost documentary-like portrayal of their cultures and traditions, and the problems they faced while living on reservations and not being allowed by the law at the time to hunt buffalo and to practise their religion and various rituals and ceremonies connected to their traditional spiritual beliefs.