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Doug George-Kanentiio: Mohawk actor Jay Silverheels was more than famous 'Tonto' role

Filed Under: Arts & Entertainment | First Nations in Canada | Opinion
More on: doug george-kanentiio, film, harold smith, jay silverheels, languages, mohawk, ontario, tv
     
   

Jay Silverheels, whose given name was Harold Smith and whose Mohawk name was Sohahiio, was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles, California, shortly before his passing in June 1980. Photo by JGKlein

Jay Silverheels: Mohawk Actor Was More Than Tonto
By Doug George-Kanentiio

He was Jay Silverheels the most famous Native person of the 1940's and 50's as the result of playing Tonto to the Lone Ranger.

Silverheels was born Harold Smith on the Six Nations territory west of Hamilton, Ontario on May 26 1912, the son of Major George Smith, the most decorated Native Canadian soldier in World War 1.

He as a gifted athlete excelling in the sports of wrestling,boxing and lacrosse. As a young man he was recruited to play for the Rochester, NY all Native team then moved on to a Canadian all star team before fans across the continent. That Canadian team had is rosters of stars but the most talented was my uncle Angus George.

Angus's Mohawk name was Sohahiio which meant "Shining Path" which became 'Shine". He was six feet tall and 220 pounds of muscle and strength, his powerful shot developed from his years as a lumberjack in the Adirondacks. The game flowed from him as he took to the floor. He was the most formidable adversary to opposing teams from Vancouver to Montreal then moved into the US where he promoted box lacrosse in New York.

He had an eye for talent and when he saw Harry Smith play he brought him on to the team. What impressed my uncle most was Smith's fighting abilities which he had taken to New York State's Golden Gloves tournament where he placed second in his division.

Smith was selected to join the all star Native Canadian lacrosse team which attracted large crowds particularly along the west coast. In Los Angeles the contests drew movie stars and celebrities one of whom was the comedian-producer Joe E. Brown.

Brown approached my uncle and made him an offer. He would arrange for Shine to get into the movie business as an extra and stunt man in western films. he liked my uncle's size and fierce demeanor which he thought would be ideal for the violence of the we tern genre.

My uncle though about it for a moment. He told Brown he had to turn down his offer and return to Akwesasne to care for his mother and siblings. Brown asked him if he would suggest another team member for the business which he said required nothing more than to ride on horses and when the director said to fall off he was to do so on cue.


Jay Silveheels in his most famous role as Tonto. Photo from ABC Television

Simple, just fall off a racing horse. Again, my uncle said no but, he told Brown, there was a young man who could do this easily and he pointed to Harry Smith. "Why him?" asked Brown. "Because," my uncle said, "he does not know how to ride a horse!"

Brown made the offer to Smith which he accepted but as his move career gradually developed the Mohawk actor realized "Smith" would not carry him very far. He had, as a lacrosse player, earned the name "Silverheels" from an ancestor and because of his speed and Jay was a natural extension of Harold J. Smith.

As the years went by Jay earned greater roles, finally breaking into a speaking part as Tom Osceola in the move "Key Largo" with Humphrey Bogart. He also had a significant role with Tyrone Power in Captain of Castille. In 1949, after a dozen years of near anonymity he was selected to play Tonto on the Lone Ranger series at the birth of television.

Silverheels as Tonto was often qualified in speech but Jay remained positive, even slipping a few phrases of Mohawk in what was a western cowboy and Indians world.

From 1949-1957 Jay Silverheels was America's perception of the civilized Indian. But once the series ended he could not break into roles other than as an Indian. He had small parts in movies int he 1960's and on TV shows in the 1970's before he suffered a stroke in 1975. He died in Los Angeles in 1980, was cremated and brought back to Six Nations where he was selected as a member of the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame.

A founder of the American Indian Workshop, which promoted Native actors, he was awarded a star on the Walk of Fame shortly before his death.

Doug George-Kanentiio is an Akwesasne Mohawk currently residing on Oneida Territory with his wife Joanne Shenandoah.

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Doug George-Kanentiio: Oscar boycott ignores plight of Native people (01/20)
Doug George-Kanentiio: All genders respected in tribal societies (01/12)
Doug George-Kanentiio: Respect treaty right to cross borders (11/10)
Doug George-Kanentiio: Native people play key role in politics (10/09)
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Doug George-Kanentiio: A historic opening for lacrosse games (09/24)
Doug George-Kanentiio: Onondaga Nation hosts lacrosse games (09/22)
Doug George-Kanentiio: The Native roots of Syrian refugee crisis (09/09)
Doug George-Kanentiio: In the golden era of Iroquois lacrosse (08/12)
Doug George-Kanentiio: Imposters bring harm to Native people (06/17)
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